With Donald Trump headed for the White House, there's a looming question about how his administration will affect the United States' refugee policy — and what the future holds for Rutland's plans to begin taking in Syrian refugees this year.
President Obama has called for a sharp increase in the number of refugees the U.S. accepts in the coming fiscal year to 110,000. Rutland is gearing up to take in 100 Syrian refugees this year, with more expected to follow. But a Trump administration may change that.
During his campaign, Donald Trump warned that granting refugee status to Syrians could become a potential "Trojan horse" for jihadis. And at a rally last year in New Hampshire, he told a cheering crowd, “I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back. They’re going back, I’m telling you.”
Doris Meissner is the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. She says given the strong language Trump used about refugees in the campaign, she expects big changes.
“It will not be business as usual where refugee resettlement is concerned once he’s in office, and that might in particular affect the Syrian program," Meissner says.
Meissner says that while it’s possible Trump would send back refugees now living in the United States, she thinks that would be a very costly and difficult. And given the deplorable conditions in Syria, she believes it's unlikely.
“But I do believe that future flows will be affected significantly," she says.
Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which oversees the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, released a statement that said, “We encourage our new President to continue the tradition of the best of American values including equal protection and respect for every member of society.”
The statement continued:
"Worldwide, millions are denied basic human rights and we are strengthened as a country when all of humanity is recognized. America has always been the beacon of hope for the oppressed and this must continue ...
Throughout our history refugees and immigrants have been welcomed to America by Presidents from both parties in war and in peace and the current global refugee crisis is no time to shrink from this leadership.”
The organization stated that it is continuing its efforts toward resettling refugees into Rutland, with plans to secure office space and select staff ongoing. The organization also remains hopeful that it will welcome the first families to Rutland in the new year.
President-elect Trump has repeatedly said the country needs to slow down refugee resettlement to protect America from possible terrorist threats.
But Doris Meissner says the facts don’t support that. She says last year, for example, close to 70 percent of the more than 12,000 Syrian refugees brought into the United States were women and children.
“They’re incredibly vulnerable,” she says. “They’re the victims of what’s going on in the Middle East and they’ve been vetted very intensively. And once they have gotten here, we have not had the experience of security risks coming from that population.”
Meissner says U.S. immigration law sets a benchmark of allowing 50,000 refugees a year into the country. But she says the president has the power to come to Congress on an annual basis to propose boosting or cutting that number, and she expects Trump to call for reductions.
Funds for the coming year’s refugee resettlement programs are currently included in the federal budget. But that budget is part of continuing resolution, which means it needs to be renewed by Congress on Dec. 9.
Meissner says she expects those funds will remain, but admits nothing is certain.
Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton has had serious concerns about the number of refugees expected in Rutland and their potential cost. She likes the idea of the Trump administration slowing things down and reexamining the vetting process.
"I’m hoping that the federal government through the process, under a new presidency, will examine how they’re doing business, and really thinking about this in terms of how it’s a good fit for the community," says Wilton. "I still stick to my guns and say if we had 25 new Americans per year coming here from different parts of the world, fine. But 100 is too many.”
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras says until he gets more information, he’s focusing on the fact that only 38 percent of Rutland City voters chose Donald Trump in the presidential election. And he says that’s hardly a ringing endorsement on Trump’s stance on refugees.