VPR has been following the developing story of refugee settlement and the impact in Vermont of President Donald Trump's policy change last week.
Here is an update on work that has halted and work that continues with refugees in Vermont.
The policy changes affecting immigration
There are seven countries on a list from which no immigration is going to be allowed: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. In addition to that, no refugees from any countries will be resettled in the U.S. for the next 120 days. After that 120 days, it's hard to know what policy changes will be put in place. About a hundred Syrian refugees were planned to be resettled in Rutland this year.
So what happens in Rutland?
The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program opened an office in Rutland and hired staff there in anticipation of supporting 100 people in need of transition services. Now, they have only nine resettled refugees needing that support.
Amila Merdzanovic, executive director of VRRP, told VPR Wednesday morning that the organization is planing to keep the Rutland office open. They have government contracts to provide these services, she said, and they have commitments to fulfill to the refugees who are there.
How are the two Syrian families already in Rutland doing?
The two resettled families comprise nine people, four adults, five children. They stayed with host families their first week in Rutland, but moved into their own apartments this past weekend. Between the two families, there are three school-aged children who have just begun attending school. The focus now is on lining up employment for the parents.
Amidst news reports that some refugees will be allowed into the U.S. just this week, is there any chance that Vermont might still receive a few more refugees – from Syria or elsewhere?
It's true there are some more refugees being allowed into the United States, but none are coming to Vermont. Eskinder Negash, senior vice president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Washington, D.C., told VPR there are exceptions being made this week that will allow 872 refugees into the United States up until Feb. 2. These are people who are in the so-called "pipeline" of security checks -- people who had already been cleared but who were stopped from traveling because of the policy change.
All of those individuals are from countries not on the list of banned countries, but none of them are coming to Vermont. Negash said there had been one case of a Somali refugee who had been cleared for resettlement in Vermont who was supposed to arrive next week, but his flight has been canceled because Somalia is on that list of seven countries.
What is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants?
There are nine non-governmental agencies in the U.S. that oversee all refugee resettlement. Many of them are faith-based groups, though the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is not. Every resettlement program in the United States – like Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program – works through one of these nine agencies to do the work of actually resettling refugees. USCRI oversees resettlement in 35 places across the country, including Vermont.
Are there other refugees who were supposed to come to Vermont who now aren't?
Yes. Merdzanovic said that several families were scheduled to arrive next week in Vermont – up to 15 people, most of them from Bhutan. They are not traveling.
She also spoke about a Somali family whose reunification in Vermont has been thwarted. Part of the family is already resettled here in Vermont, and a family reunification visa had just been approved that would have allowed their relatives to come here also. But Somalia is now one of seven countries from which no immigration is allowed, so that reunification won't be taking place.
In her description of that family's situation, Merdzanovic said it puts the mother of that family in a painful place where her relatives cannot come here, and she she cannot go there even to visit with them for fear that she won't be allowed back into the United States.
What does the VRRP do now that there is a 120-day halt on all refugees?
They'll continue to work with those people who have recently arrived; 185 refugees have resettled in Vermont since October, including refugees who are Bhutanese from Nepal, Congolese, Somali, Iraqi and also those two Syrian families.
The VRRP office in Colchester provides recent arrivals with language classes, social services, citizenship classes and job counseling. Their storerooms are full of household goods and clothing to help ease the transition of arriving without means to set up a household. There's a lot of activity that still continues for the VRRP, even as new individuals aren't actually arriving right now.
What happens next?
The situation is fluid. When asked about all kinds of hypothetical situations, there isn't much more Merdzanovic can say than, "I guess that's possible." In the mean time, VRRP is organizing meetings with different refugee communities that they serve in order to review their legal rights as resettled refugees.
Merdzanovic has marked the 120-day ban on refugees to end on May 27, and at that point there should be more to know as far as if the Trump administration has been able to redesign the refugee admissions process to fit its definition of "extreme vetting." But in any case, if and when refugee admissions are restarted, the executive order states that the U.S. will accept less than half the number of refugees than previously targeted. That means about 50,000 people will be admitted, presumably none from the countries on the banned list.
The refugee experience and vetting process
The vetting of refugees before they were admitted to the United States was a detailed and regimented process which NPR's Deb Amos explains in this video. The U.S. Department of State's Director of Refugee Admissions Larry Bartlett briefed VPR on that process in an interview on Jan. 10 – before the changeover of presidential administrations.
At the end of the interview, Bartlett made this statement in defense of refugee resettlement:
"I'll try to be diplomatic. It's really terrible to be a refugee. You know, it's really terrible to have had to leave your country. And I think one of the things that Americans don't always understand – and I won't single out Americans because I think it's people around the world don't understand, who aren't refugees, who have it pretty good – these aren't people who want to come to the United States. These aren't people who've left Syria because they want to come to the U.S. and make a better life. Those are economic migrants. That's different.
"These are people who've left everything they've had. Many of them have had tragedies within their family, people killed and tortured. And they've been surviving. One of the words that is often used with refugees or about refugees is that they're very resilient. These are people who fled, these are people who had the wherewithal to get out, they were able to do it. Sometimes they had to bribe their way through borders. They've coped. Survival as a refugee in a place like Jordan or Turkey is not easy. There's survival sex that happens, there's kids working, there's all kinds of bad things that people do to cope. And they've made that decision – 'In order to stay alive, in order to provide for my family while I'm treading water, this is what I've got to do.'
"And so to me, one of the greatest things about [the U.S. refugee resettlement program] is that we're giving people a second chance. By and large, they make an amazing opportunity [of it] and I would hope that every refugee who comes here as an adult has an amazing life. We know that it's hard. It's hard to learn a new language the older you get. It's hard to make a transition into a different job when you've come out of a different cultural environment. But one thing that you will always find with refugees is oftentimes they will say, 'It's about my kids.' And it's, to me, it's the one thing that unites us all. It's about our kids, it's about the next generation. It’s about people who are less fortunate than we are. And I just think this is an amazing program and I really thank the people of Rutland for opening their homes and their hearts to refugees."