Trump Threw Weighty Refugee Decisions to Local Government, With Painful Results

Trump Threw Weighty Refugee Decisions to Local Government, With Painful Results

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Originally published by The NY Times

In a gray-walled, institutional hall usually reserved for prosaic debates over traffic and town budgets, Mohamoud Abdirahman rose from the audience last month and approached a panel of five town councilmen sitting in judgment.

Civil war had forced his family to flee their native Somalia in 1991, when he was a child. The Abdirahmans traveled for two days by cargo ship to Kenya, where they stayed for a year and a half before securing refuge in the United States. Now, it was his turn to fight for those trying to follow his footsteps to this town abutting Springfield and the Connecticut border.

“A lot of people like me just want a second chance at life,” an emotional Mr. Abdirahman pleaded.

A similar refrain is echoing across the country in town councils, county commissions, mayors’ offices and governors’ mansions after an executive order signed by President Trump in September granted local politicians a veto over the placement of refugees in their communities.

That order has carried the national tension over the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration agenda from the halls of Washington and detention camps along the southwestern border to places like East Longmeadow, population 16,000, and turned refugees and those who work to resettle them into lobbyists of sorts.

The anxiety among resettlement officials here has grown in recent weeks after the mayor of neighboring Springfield, one of the largest cities in Western Massachusetts, became one of the first politicians in the country to announce that he would not allow refugee resettlement. That was amplified by the decision of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas last month to block resettlement for the entire state, which has welcomed more refugees than any other state in the past five years. And on Friday, Mr. Trump put refugees who have lived in Western Massachusetts for years at risk of continuing to stay separated from their relatives abroad when he added Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania to a list of countries facing stringent travel restrictions.

“This goes against everything we know,” said Maxine Stein, the chief executive of the Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a refugee resettlement agency.

The vetoes issued so far in Texas, Springfield and counties in Minnesota and Virginia were suspended in recent weeks by a federal judge who issued a temporary injunction against the executive order. The ruling delayed a Jan. 21 deadline for resettlement agencies to submit funding requests — along with letters of consent from governors and local officials — to the State Department.

But the resettlement agencies say there is still an urgent need for the resettlement approvals. Judges issued similar temporary injunctions for Mr. Trump’s other immigration polices, only to have the Supreme Court side with the administration.

It is also, the resettlement agencies say, about education. Some local officials were wholly unfamiliar with refugee policy before Mr. Trump tasked them with deciding whether resettlement should continue in their communities. Under the executive order, if a town board, county official or mayor declines — or neglects — to make a decision, silence equates to a veto.

“What we’ve seen in the courts is that the deadline may be pushed back, but it often doesn’t go away,” said Sara Bedford, who works with refugee families for the Jewish Family Service. “As long as the Springfield mayor doesn’t opt in, I think refugee communities will feel just a little bit less welcome.”

The vague wording of the executive order also caused confusion among refugee resettlement officials, who questioned which local official had the power to consent to the State Department.

Under the order, consent is required from governors and “localities,” which in many places was interpreted as the county leadership. But some Western Massachusetts towns are not represented by a county government, so the decision in Springfield fell to Domenic J. Sarno, the son of Italian immigrants and the longest-serving mayor of one of the poorest cities in the state.

Mr. Sarno, a Democrat, issued his veto even after Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts formally consented to allow refugees into the state and the Springfield City Council unanimously voted to allow them into the city.

“You cannot continue to concentrate poverty on top of poverty,” Mr. Sarno wrote in Springfield’s newspaper, The Republican. He demanded that more affluent communities “step up to the plate and put their money where their mouth is — to take on their fair share of social justice responsibilities.”

Mr. Sarno’s words echoed those of Mr. Trump, who has said the country is “full” and has threatened to send immigrants by the busload to Democratic cities and towns that have denounced his policies. Michael A. Fenton, the Springfield councilman who introduced the resolution to welcome refugees, said he had been fielding calls from residents demanding the city “let them go to the suburbs.” Mr. Abbott argued, “Texas has carried more than its share.”

But most government officials who responded to the executive order have decided to accept refugees into their states and counties, including those dominated by Republicans. At least 42 governors and more than 110 local governments have consented.

They include Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas and former under secretary of homeland security, who in 2015 opposed allowing Syrian refugees into the state, citing security concerns. Last month, Mr. Hutchinson testified before his State Legislature to defend allowing refugees into Arkansas, taking with him a Congolese business owner and an Afghan refugee who assisted the American military.

Gary Stubblefield, an Arkansas state senator, pressed his fellow Republican, lamenting, “Every morning when I wake up and turn on the national news, sometimes I ask myself a question: ‘Am I still in the United States of America?’”

Mr. Hutchinson held his ground: “You’ve got a choice to make. You can create fear, or you can help resolve fear. I challenge you to help resolve fear.”

In a twist, Mr. Hutchinson said in an interview that he was encouraged to allow refugees into Arkansas since a limited number would most likely be resettled in the state after Mr. Trump capped the number for 2020 at 18,000, down from 30,000 in the previous year. President Barack Obama set the cap at 110,000 his last year in office.

Still, Mr. Hutchinson’s staff spent the first days after his decision fielding angry calls from constituents, an uncomfortable task that Mr. Fenton in Springfield knows well. By signing the executive order, Mr. Trump has put municipal leaders in an unfair position, Mr. Fenton said.

“Municipal officials in the Northeast, we deal with snow, we deal with potholes, we deal with property taxes, trash pickup,” he said. “We do not deal with the complications associated with refugee immigration policy.”

He worries that the mayor’s decision will have a lasting effect on Springfield’s reputation.

“Those active and contributing members of our society don’t feel good about themselves in the place that they live when people say they’re not welcome,” Mr. Fenton said.

Mr. Sarno’s rejection of refugees surprised Fikiri Amisi and Jacqueline Asumani, Congolese immigrants who came to Springfield last year after spending more than 12 years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. When he first came to Springfield, Mr. Amisi said, it felt as though he had been saved. Both work full time, Ms. Asumani at a hotel and Mr. Amisi at a factory that manufactures medical supplies. Mr. Amisi is also studying for his associate degree. They have three children and plan to buy a house next year.

The couple wonders what they have done wrong.

“They don’t want more refugees here,” Ms. Asumani told her husband. “It shows they don’t love us.”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Amisi looked through a photo album and stopped at an image showing the refugee camp where he used to wait in limbo. A friend called him to express concern over the mayor’s decision. He has been waiting for a ticket to the United States for four years, though long ago he cleared the refugee screening process.

The resettlement officials at Jewish Family Service have tried to meet with officials on a near daily basis. Municipal leaders often ask about costs to the school system and whether the local government will need to provide housing for the refugees. The staff reassures them that the onus is on the resettlement agency, which helps families find work and pay for the first three months of housing.

While a veto by a local official cannot prevent a refugee from moving to a city from within the United States, it prohibits the resettlement organizations from providing that initial financial support and could harm their overall funding, according to Ms. Stein.

“When you’re sleeping on relatives’ floors or extra beds, and you’re all jammed into the kitchen, and it’s chaotic in the morning to get to school so you just don’t get to school, it’s just not a good scene,” Ms. Stein said.

She made that case to the East Longmeadow Town Council, hoping councilors would open the door to refugees shut out of Springfield. Some seemed moved by the testimonies, including the story of Mr. Abdirahman, who now holds a master’s degree and works as the assistant director of behavioral health services at Jewish Family Service.

“To our residents who took the time to speak from your heart, thank you for doing that,” said Kathleen G. Hill, the Town Council president. “And come visit anytime.”

But the Council already voted to take no action on Mr. Trump’s executive order in November, weeks after it was signed. Local government rules stipulated that they could not take the matter up for another six months.

Their hands were tied. And under Mr. Trump’s policy, doing nothing meant turning the refugees away.

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