News about refugee policies can tear through refugee communities quickly, bouncing through instant messaging apps as households and friends attempt to decipher what they mean — and whether they’ll delay a reunion with loved ones trying to come to the U.S.
“That aura of worry can spill into panic quickly,” said Julianne Donnelly Tzul, executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Boise.
Late last week, the Trump administration proposed to admit just 18,000 refugees next year, the lowest cap since the Refugee Act of 1980. The proposal comes with quotas for types of refugees and countries of origin. Refugee advocates and resettlement agency staff say that will complicate an already Byzantine system that leaves even the people with the strongest cases for resettlement stranded in refugee camps or dangerous countries for years at a time.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees,” the U.S. Department of State said in the Sept. 26 release. “ ... Indeed, it would be irresponsible for the United States to go abroad seeking large numbers of refugees to resettle when the humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border already imposes an extraordinary burden on the U.S. immigration system.”
Accompanying the announcement was a new executive order granting states and localities the ability to decline to resettle refugees. How the executive order will be enforced — and whether Idaho officials will take that opportunity — is still unclear.
“There is extreme uncertainty as to how many refugees will be able to come to Idaho next year,” Tzul said.
Son waiting in Iraq
Flights for 58 refugees due to arrive in Boise were canceled in September, according to the International Rescue Committee in Boise.
The last of the 30,000 refugees allowed to enter the United States in fiscal year 2019 arrived Sept. 30, the final day of the fiscal year. No more were allowed in. Last year, the United States admitted only 22,000 refugees, half of the 45,000 promised.
The IRC in Boise said it’s likely those flights were canceled in favor of higher-priority cases — medical emergencies or minor children — resettling in different parts of the country.
“They have loved ones, very close loved ones, not making it here even though they meet all the legal requirements of the program and would be able to come lawfully if enough slots had been permitted,” Tzul said.
Ahmed Al-Abboodi and his family left Iraq in 2006, fleeing to Syria to escape the sectarian and religious violence that engulfed the country during and after the U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. There, they applied for resettlement with the U.N. Refugee Agency, but soon realized their refuge was anything but.
“The situation in Syria became difficult also,” said Al-Abboodi, who became a U.S. citizen this summer. “We moved from house to house because of the fighting.”
Al-Abboodi, his wife Zainab, one of his daughters and his two sons fled Syria as the Syrian civil war began, returning to Baghdad to wait for permission to travel to the U.S.
In the process, officials separated the cases of one of his sons, Ali — who had turned 20 — and the rest of the family. When the rest of the family was approved for resettlement in the U.S. in January 2014, Ali couldn’t go with them. It was a difficult decision, but the family left him in Baghdad on the promise that he would follow shortly, once his own flight to the United States was approved the same month.
Then, the unthinkable happened, twice. Ali missed his first flight because of traffic, and the plane left Baghdad without him. Then, on the way to his rescheduled flight, he was in a car accident, missing his final chance to join his family. Officials closed Ali’s case, citing his two missed travel dates. He was trapped, unable to join his family.
“I haven’t seen him for six years,”’ Al-Abboodi said. “He’s alone in Baghdad.”
Al-Abboodi said Ali is now staying with extended family in Baghdad. Zainab has experienced a series of medical problems since they resettled in the U.S., which Al-Abboodi says is caused by grief and desperation to see her son. She was able to return to Iraq to see him for a month in January, but Al-Abboodi said it almost made the separation worse.
“His mother is very, very, very (desperate) for him,” Al-Abboodi said. “She has many, many problems with her health because ... he lives far away from her.”
Just when the family was beginning to lose hope, they successfully petitioned Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo to reopen Ali’s case. Sometime in late 2016, the case was reopened. He had another chance to join his family.
But in early 2017, the Trump administration’s travel ban and temporary shutdown of refugee admissions changed everything. The refugee admission process has been painstakingly slow ever since, with countless cases like Ali’s hanging in limbo.
“According to our records, there is no change in the status of this case,” said the last email update Al-Abboodi received from Crapo’s office, on July 18.
In an email to the Statesman, Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said the growing backlog of people seeking to enter the U.S. is one reason for the slow progress of cases.
Refugee arrivals from majority-Muslim countries are also down across the board under the Trump administration. This year, the U.S. accepted only 465 total refugees from Iraq, according to a Refugee Council USA report. New quotas mandate that the U.S. accept only 5,000 people fleeing religious persecution; 4,000 Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military; 1,500 people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador; and an additional 7,500 migrants seeking family reunification and already cleared for resettlement.
Even though Ali was originally cleared for resettlement, the low number of available spots and new security protocols mean he might not be approved to travel to the U.S. in 2020.
For now, Ali remains in Baghdad, working as a chef and waiting for good news. His son can hardly make plans for the future, Al-Abboodi said, thinking life will finally begin when he reunites with his family in Boise.
“I just want my family complete,“ Al-Abboodi said.
Would Idaho opt out of resettling refugees?
Normally, refugees approved for resettlement in the United States could arrive starting Oct. 22 — after the standard travel moratorium that usually accompanies the end of the fiscal year, according to IRC Boise. But the new executive order, allowing state and local governments to opt out of resettlement, has thrown that into limbo.
The executive order doesn’t clarify the process for states and localities to opt out of refugee resettlement — or which officials will have the authority to sign off on that decision. Any discussions about continued refugee resettlement in Idaho would likely include the governor’s office and officials from Boise and Twin Falls, both historically used as refugee resettlement locations.
“The governor’s office is reviewing the president’s executive order and policies on refugee resettlement to determine the best path forward for Idaho citizens,” spokeswoman Marissa Morrison told the Statesman on Tuesday.
Despite the uncertain logistics of the executive order, Boise officials said the city would emphatically support continued refugee resettlement, if given the chance to weigh in. National nonprofit Welcoming America certified Boise as a “Welcoming City” in May, citing the city’s work to integrate refugees into the community.
“If at some point we are presented with the opportunity to make that decision, of course we would continue to welcome refugees and others — anyone — with open arms,” city spokesman Mike Journee said. “I don’t think our position and philosophy of being a welcoming city would change.”
Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation praised the executive order’s emphasis on local control and feedback. However, Crapo spokesman Nothern did not respond to a question asking whether Crapo would call for continued refugee resettlement in Idaho.
“Senator Crapo has always felt states and local governments are best able to discern solutions relating to federal decisions that affect them,” Nothern said in an email to the Statesman. “Regarding the level of refugee admissions, he would defer to state feedback.”
Sen. Jim Risch echoed Crapo’s support for the executive order.
“States and localities have long sought to be treated as partners of the federal government as it works to place and successfully resettle refugees,” Risch said in an email statement provided to the Statesman. “This Executive Order will give state and local governments a long-overdue seat at the table, strengthening collaborative efforts to help refugee populations assimilate, succeed, and become thriving members of our communities.”
Rep. Russ Fulcher said the U.S.’s refugee system was designed to help those in “legitimate crisis” and to aid allied countries in time of war. He said local input in the process was “imperative.”
“When it comes to refugee placement, the dynamics in Idaho are different than in New York or California,” Fulcher said. “The president’s recent reform order provides for some of that local flexibility ... Immigration is healthy and good ... so long as it is controlled and follows the rule of law.”
Rep. Mike Simpson did not return a request for comment.
Uncertain future for Boise refugees
It’s possible the refugees scheduled to arrive in Boise this year could arrive during the 90-day review period specified in the executive order, Tzul said.
“However, to qualify to come to the U.S., refugees have to have a series of time-sensitive checks all current (medical clearances, multiple security checks),” Tzul wrote in an email to the Statesman. “Those checks expire. So the 58 people who were all prepared to travel in September might include people who have to restart any number of checks, and be delayed an unknown amount of time to be able to qualify again.”
Despite Idaho’s history of welcoming and resettling refugees, there’s no guarantee that will continue. Al-Abboodi said the news of the lower refugee cap made him worried that more families — not just his — would spend too long waiting for good news.
“Not just for me. Many families need their families,” Al-Abboodi said. “I hope my son joins us soon.”