When she’s not teaching in the Boise State University engineering lab, Luma Al Naserawi works at a local health clinic as an Arabic interpreter for refugees arriving in Boise.
It’s been three years since she, her husband and their children made their own journey to Boise as Iraqi refugees. They didn’t realize they would be among the last from their country to arrive here.
Starting early last year, President Donald Trump banned arrivals from several mostly Muslim countries, cut the cap on refugee admissions to 45,000 and suspended a program to reunite families split in the resettlement pipeline.
The new policies have drastically cut the number of refugees arriving in Idaho, and dramatically shifted the mix of countries represented by those newcomers.
Idaho has taken 113 refugees so far this fiscal year, which started in October. During the past five years, Idaho had already taken in between 337 and 435 refugees by this point in the fiscal year.
Whether it’s a stricter vetting process, the lack of refugees from certain countries or something else, Idaho and the U.S. are now nowhere near on track to resettle even the reduced number of refugees.
Supporters of Trump’s policies say they're not anti-refugee. They say they’re concerned about terrorism, and question whether the vetting process for refugees and other immigrants is enough to protect Americans.
Al Naserawi said her family went through five years of screening before they got on the airplane to the U.S. She said even the couple’s newborn baby was required to have a security check, which took a year.
‘WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?’
For thousands of refugee families already building new lives in the U.S., the changes are playing out in decidedly uneven ways. The restrictions have kept many families apart, while allowing some to reunite — sorting people by country and, effectively, by religion.
“I know people who are stuck in Turkey, and they’ve sold everything they have at home,” Al Naserawi said. “They can’t go back home, and they can’t enter the United States.”
Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, said his program was projected to take 195 arrivals this year. Almost halfway into the year, it’s received only 18 percent of that number, he said.
Rwasama said it’s unclear why the refugee flow has slowed to a trickle.
“What is the problem? Is it the vetting process? Is it funding? What is it?” he said.
“There’s certainly a pretty dramatic shift” in the mix and number of arrivals, said Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
The U.S. is on track to take 21,000 refugees this year, the fewest since a 1980 law established the modern resettlement system, and a quarter of those admitted in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. About 15 percent are Muslim, down from 47 percent a year ago.
“The United States is committed to assisting people of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities,” a State Department spokeswoman said in a written response to questions.
FROM HUNDREDS TO ZERO
Boise immigration attorney Kathryn Railsback said she’s been working with refugees since the 1980s. Now, she said, is the hardest time to be a refugee trying to enter America.
“It’s never been easy to come to the U.S. as a refugee. It’s always just a tiny fraction of refugees worldwide that the U.S. accepts — a very tiny percentage,” she said. “It’s never been easy, but it’s never been so openly hostile as it is now. … And I think we’ve never had as many refugees worldwide as we have now.”
The United Nations refugee agency reported last year that more refugees were seeking safety in other countries than at any time since at least the 1950s.
Trump’s policies have left Bhutan and Congo as the largest contributors to the dwindling pool, accounting for 45 percent of U.S. arrivals since October. Meanwhile, the U.S. has accepted few from countries like Iraq. The mix is similar in Idaho, where Congolese refugees are the largest group so far this fiscal year, followed by those from Bhutan, Eritrea and Ukraine.
Idaho took in between 79 and 292 Iraqi refugees per year during the Obama administration. So far this year, Idaho has received zero refugees from Iraq.
The number of refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and Syria also have dropped to zero this year, after arriving in Idaho by the dozens or hundreds in recent years.
Not only has the cut affected the people applying for admission, it’s put stress on the networks Idaho’s refugee-friendly communities have built up over the years, said Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees. English-language classes with fewer students may receive less funding but still require the same number of teachers, for example.
And it affects local employers who call her office looking for workers. When the Trump administration first began rolling out its policies, Idaho employers that hire refugees and immigrants — including Chobani, HP Inc. and The Modern Hotel — voiced concerns that they would lose part of their workforce.
Wolfson has to tell them, “We just really don’t have anybody available to apply for your position,” she said. “They’re like deer in headlights, like, ‘What do you mean nobody’s going to apply for this job? I increased the wage.’ ”
Al Naserawi says she’s noticed the change in her job at the health clinic. Fewer patients are coming in speaking Arabic.
It’s unnerving for Al Naserawi and her husband, Muhammed Al Charakh, to see the shift. When they arrived in Boise in March 2015, they knew only Al Naserawi’s sister, who lived here. Al Charakh didn’t speak much English. They’d left behind all their worldly possessions and had three young children.
Now, they both speak English fluently. They just bought a house in Boise. They both have good jobs in fields where Idaho needs experienced workers — Al Naserawi has her BSU work, and Al Charakh is a microbiologist with the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories. They said Boiseans are friendly and welcoming, and they’re thankful they were sent to Idaho to resettle.
But the change in the policies for non-U.S.-born residents means they may never be able to see certain family members again.
Al Charakh said they’ve put on hold any plans to visit relatives in the Middle East — or even take a trip to Canada. Around the time Trump’s ban was announced, one of their family members was unable to get back into the U.S. for months after taking a trip outside the U.S., Al Charakh said.
“We took that as a lesson and said, ‘No, we will not go outside the USA,’ ” he said.