By Yuko Kurahashi
On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. That weekend, San Diego International Airport was packed with people who raised their voices against the order. When Trump’s revised travel ban was issued on March 6, 2017, again, hundreds of protesters gathered at San Diego International Airport to show their support for refugee and immigrant populations. I recently attended an event that increased my understanding of the refugee problem and the falsehoods that the ban is based upon.
On March 1, 2017, I attended the 4th Annual Women’s Leadership Symposium: Framing Art and Protest at Kent State University, Kent Ohio. The keynote speaker was Catherine Holmes, manager of the Office for New Americans (a New York State funded program) within the Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. One of two resettlement agencies (the other is Interfaith Works) in Syracuse, New York, the majority of the people they serve are refugees from Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bhutan. In 2016 alone, over 1200 refugees came to Syracuse and more than 50% of these were children.
Holmes began her speech by saying, “Nobody wants to become refugees.” She then explained the process that begins when war comes to people, forcing them to evacuate from their homes. Usually with only a few cooking utensils and clothes, they walk great distances to UN refugee camps, where they register with the United Nation High Commissioner (UNHCR) and receive a stipend of food, a bucket, and a tarp. Often the members of a family end up at different refugee camps.
The UNHCR or other NGO (non government agency) and the United State Embassy collect their identification documents, biodata and fingerprints, and perform initial assessments and refer them to one of the nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) currently funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). After an in-person interview conducted by a U.S. Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services officer and fingerprinting, followed by security checks, a refugee is approved or denied resettlement. Those approved are able to move to the next step, which is a medical and further security screening.
While going through these interviews and screenings, applicants are required to find an agency that will assist them upon arrival in the United States. The approved refugees are then required to take cultural orientation classes and undergo further security checks. If a woman applies for resettlement and then gives birth to a child during the waiting period, she will need to submit a new application for her baby. The refugees are checked again at the departing port to ensure their identity. Upon arrival in the United States, refugees are guided by International Office of Migration (IOM) personnel.
With this lengthy and difficult processes, less than one percent of the global refugee population (1% of 21.3 million, according to the 2015 UNHCR report) are able to obtain a refugee status. The average “waiting period” is 17 years for most African countries and 3-7 years for Syria.
The voluntary agencies (Holmes’s office works with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) arranges and pays for refugees’ transportation but refugees are required to pay back the cost. In addition, all refugees are required to apply for a green card within a year of their arrival to the United States, which serves as another set of security procedures.
In Syracuse, the Office for New Americans helps refugees to locate housing and teaches them how to use public transportation, how to shop for groceries, and how to enroll children in school. They also offer classes such as English (for everyday life), basic parenting expectations in America (the appropriate age of children to be left alone, for example), civil rights, women’s rights, medical appointments, and American culture. Resettlement agencies also do their best to reunite families that have become separated in the immigration process.
Holmes also discussed how the Trump executive order would impact the refugee communities. Those refugees from the banned countries are very afraid of the safety of their family overseas waiting for the approval. The refugees, even those who have obtained a Green Card, are fearful of traveling. Several of the families that Holmes has worked with have cancelled trips to visit sick parents or to visit their families. There is also the fear that a loss of funding may result in a reduction in needed services, leaving refugees without adequate support.
Holmes also noted that an extended ban would negatively impact central New York, which relies on refugees and immigrants for agricultural work. Holmes emphasized that refugees are hard-working and increase diversity and enrich the United States by introducing their culture, arts, food, and languages.
In order to respond to the “extreme vetting,” says Holmes, “we need to make what is going on in the world visible” because when people see, “people act.” In San Diego County the resettlement agencies (listed in the California Department of Social Services) include: Alliance for African Assistance; Catholic Charities, San Diego; International Rescue Committee; and Jewish Family Service of San Diego.