Amid a global crisis, U.S. refugee program is ‘decimated’

U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey joined a roundtable discussion organized by MIRA with refugee resettlement agencies, legal experts and advocates to assess the impact of the travel and refugee bans.

SuraAlAzzawi speaks about her experience as a refugee.Sura A., right, describes her personal experience as a refugee from Iraq. Prior to coming to the U.S., she waited in Turkey for several years.

BOSTON – On January 27, 2017, President Trump barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – and all refugees – from entering the U.S., with the stated goal to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks.” Thousands of protesters took to the streets and filled airports, including Boston Logan, to show solidarity and provide legal assistance to detained travelers.

A year later, where do we stand? And how do we move forward?

Aiming to answer those questions, MIRA brought together legal experts, refugee resettlement agencies, advocates and public officials on February 5 at the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI), as part of a week of action to launch the nationwide We Are All America campaign.

“Our goal is to take stock of where we are, and reflect together on how to respond to the slew of nativist and inhumane policies adopted by the Trump administration,” said MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona. “We cannot allow our country to be consumed by nativism, bigotry and cruelty.”

The numbers paint a dire picture. At a time when the world is witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record, with 65.6 million people forced from their homes, including 22.5 million refugees, by the end of 2016, the U.S. has sharply curtailed refugee admissions.

After months of legal battles over the travel ban, in June the U.S. Supreme Court allowed refugee admissions to be stopped for four months, with only narrow exceptions. By Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, refugee arrivals were down 37% from 2016, to 53,716.

Refugee admissions resumed in late October, but with tougher security procedures and a ceiling of 45,000 for fiscal 2018 – the lowest cap in decades. For Massachusetts, where 1,777 refugees had been resettled in fiscal 2016, and 1,219 in 2017, the cap for 2018 was set at 955.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU, immigration attorney Susan Church and MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona discuss the legal challenges of the past year.Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU, immigration attorney Susan Church and MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona discuss the legal challenges of the past year.

Yet refugee screening has slowed so drastically that the International Rescue Committee expects only about 21,000 people to actually make it into the U.S. this year. ORI has dropped its projection for Massachusetts to 650. Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities of Boston, said her agency has only managed to resettle seven people in the past four months.

“I’ve always said it’s a miracle when a refugee makes it through this system... but now it truly, truly is,” Perhot said. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program “really is decimated.” Representatives of two other major agencies, Ascentria Care Alliance and the International Institute of New England, described similar conditions.

Susan Church, who as then-chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association – New England was on the front lines in last year’s battles over the travel and refugee bans, offered a similarly dire view of the asylum process. The Trump administration is doing everything in its power to deny asylum-seekers access to the courts, she said, and it is jailing even people with “very sympathetic cases.”

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which has been fighting the travel ban in court, said two pending federal cases, one of which is before the U.S. Supreme Court, will determine whether the current discriminatory policies can stay in effect.

Yet even legal victories can have limited impact, Segal noted, because “what the law is can be different from what happens on the ground.”

Nazia Ashraful, of CAIR, said the past year has been ‘heartbreaking’ for American Muslims.Nazia Ashraful, of CAIR, said the past year has been ‘heartbreaking’ for American Muslims.

Nazia Ashraful, director of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Massachusetts, said the travel ban threw American Muslims into a crisis that continues today. Many now face the “heartbreak” of knowing their family members abroad are barred from entering the U.S., and even those who are well established in the country feel unwelcome, their U.S. citizenship questioned.

Lisa Brennan, director of services for new Americans at Ascentria, said refugees are facing hostility and fear as well. “The rhetoric that we hear at the national level has severely affected people’s openness and willingness to welcome refugees,” particularly in areas west of Boston, she said.

There are hopeful signs, however. Perhot said Catholic Charities has several local groups competing to help resettle refugees. “We’ve never had this level of support before,” she said. Jonathan Miller, of the state Attorney General’s Office, said critical partnerships have also been strengthened. Still, several event participants agreed that far more advocacy is needed to recapture the narrative on refugees.

Brennan said that along with trying to change hearts, advocates need to make economic arguments, and share data showing that “immigrants and refugees add tremendous value.” Millona echoed that view, noting that when she speaks to conservatives about these issues, they reply, “Well, I did not know that.”

U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey, who joined the second hour of the discussion, said he’d spoken with a CEO recently who is committed to hiring a large number of refugees. Advocates could push other businesses to do the same, he suggested.

However, when asked why businesses aren’t speaking out more forcefully in support of immigrants and refugees, Markey said this issue “is just lower on their priority list,” after tax breaks and deregulation, so at this point, they aren’t willing to spend a lot of political capital on it.

The Senator also offered little hope of progress on Capitol Hill. Although he recently signed on to a bill to raise the annual refugee cap to 75,000, he said Congress needs to work on a DACA fix first, and then move on to the next issue. “We’re going to have to try to touch the hearts of these Republicans… but it’s going to be a real struggle, because there’s a strong nativist strain in their party.”

MIRA Organizing Director Liza Ryan, who moderated the discussion, ended by laying out a two-prong strategy for action: First, “we all need to push for the 45,000,” she said – “we’re not going to settle for 50% of this measly amount that you gave us.”

Second, we need to change the narrative, starting locally: “What does it feel like here in Massachusetts?” Though there is hostility, there are also “big pockets of tremendous goodwill,” she noted. “We need to say, ‘This is who we are.’ We can do better at sharing hopeful stories.”

Read a 2-page overview of the travel ban, refugee arrivals and the Mass. Refugee Resettlement Program prepared for the roundtable, see the event invitation with sponsors listed, and learn more about We Are All America.

U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey describes the political climate in Washington, flanked by Eva A. Millona and Liza Ryan of MIRA.U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey describes the political challenges of making progress on refugees and immigrants in Washington, flanked by Eva A. Millona and Liza Ryan of MIRA.