Editor's note Feb. 6: At the time of Bahati Sudjonga's arrival late on Feb. 2, he was one of the final refugees to reach Idaho before an expected four-month halt on new refugee admissions was set to start. On the evening of the following day, Friday, Feb. 3, a federal judge in Washington state issued a temporary restraining order on much of President Trump's directive regarding immigration. While initially unclear Friday, it does appear that restraining order included the refugee program suspension, and new refugees are expected to continue traveling to Idaho for resettlement for the time being.
When 19-year-old Bahati Sudjonga walked through the terminal doors at the Boise Airport late Thursday, he symbolized the promise America brings — but also the political debate over the temporary closure of this country’s borders to refugees.
Bahati is the last refugee the International Rescue Committee will be able to bring to Idaho for four months as President Donald Trump’s executive order pausing refugee immigration takes effect.
When Bahati entered the airport’s public area, his older brother, Maki Sudjonga, 22, rushed to the door. Maki put Bahati on his back and they spun around in celebration that the two young men had found safety together. A crowd of more than 100 supporters cheered.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter greeted Bahati, offering him a framed copy of a resolution passed by the City Council on Tuesday that declares Boise a “welcoming city.”
Bahati was the last refugee to arrive in Boise before Trump’s ban set in, but Twin Falls also had two more refugee families arrive Thursday, said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.
Maki and his sister, Charlotte Borive, 38, came to Boise as refugees five months ago. They were forced to leave Bahati behind.
The trio, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had to leave their country and spent the next 13 years in Uganda. Twelve of those years were in a refugee camp while they waited to find a country that would accept them.
“I’m so happy to see him again,” Maki said about his brother. “I didn’t know if I would.”
The siblings’ parents are both dead, but they have extended family still in Africa.
“We are here living happily, but now I’m worried that others can’t,” Borive said through a translator.
When asked what he hopes to do in America, Bahati said simply, “become a citizen.” The 19-year-old said he also wants to go to school, find a job and be with his family.
The executive order has brought both support from some states but serious backlash from others. On Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked Trump’s travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit. Ferguson said the order was causing significant harm to residents and effectively mandates discrimination, according to The Associated Press. Minnesota also joined the lawsuit.
President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband issued a statement Friday night regarding the judge’s decision.
"This ruling further demonstrates that the Executive Order was not adequately thought out,” Miliband wrote. “The order should be paused and existing vetting and visa systems, which have proved their worth, should be left in place. There is every right for the Administration to review and build on existing arrangements. There is no excuse for tearing up carefully developed procedures that have kept America safe."
Since October, when the federal 2017 fiscal year started, the IRC has brought 129 refugees from 12 different countries to Idaho. The group had planned to bring around 400 to the country, but Boise executive director Julianne Donnelly Tzul fears that won’t happen now.
Besides the four-month halt in new refugee admissions while officials review and enhance the screening process, Trump’s executive order put an indefinite end to new refugee admissions from Syria. It also will cut the total number of refugees allowed into the country this fiscal year to 50,000, a drop from the planned 110,000.
As of late January, nearly 30,000 refugees had already been admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2017, according to The New York Times.
The total refuge arrival to Idaho in fiscal year 2017 has been 408 people. Of those 268 are in Boise and 140 in Twin Falls, said Reeves.
In fiscal year 2016, IRC was able to bring 361 refugees to Idaho. It is one of four agencies resettling refugees in Idaho, largely in Boise and Twin Falls.
Donnelly Tzul said her IRC office likely won’t be able to take many more refugees this fiscal year because of the smaller cap.
“Every person’s story is unique and is powerful,” she said. “These are real human beings with real needs.”
Refugees, Donnelly Tzul said, are already the most intensely screened immigrants coming into this country, a point being made often in the current debate by refugee resettlement advocates. There remain many more in need, she said, offering examples of families who have been separated from their own children.
“I would ask the public to just be kind to their neighbors,” she said.