BOISE — Under the Trump’s administration’s latest cap on refugee resettlement, Idaho refugees who have been separated from their families will likely have to wait longer to be reunited, and local resettlement agencies are expecting a dip in federal funding.
“We are going to see fewer refugees make it to Boise,” said Julianne Tzul, director of International Rescue Committee’s Boise office. “When total national numbers contract, they contract everywhere.”
The Trump administration last week announced an 18,000 cap on the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. this fiscal year, which started Tuesday. Trump’s final decision on the cap must include consultation with Congress, which could push for a higher total, according to the Associated Press.
The historically low cap would affect people like Ali Al Abboodi, a 28-year-old from Baghdad who was separated from his family in 2014 while they were traveling to Boise to be resettled. His family has worked with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, in trying to secure his entry into the U.S.
“I need my son,” his father, Ahmed Al Abboodi said, “and he needs his family.”
Administration officials said the new cap is an effort to deal with a backlog of asylum cases.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees,” the Sept. 26 announcement of the cap reads. “Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense.”
Immigration courts in the U.S. are dealing with a backlog of almost 1 million cases, many of which are asylum seekers, the New York Times reports. Asylum seekers are different from refugees; they are seeking legal protections from another country and have cases that have not yet been adjudicated. Refugees have already met requirements needed to be resettled.
Under the administration’s new plan, 5,000 refugee slots are available to people fleeing their countries for religious reasons; 4,000 are for Iraqis who assisted the United States military and fall under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007; and 1,500 are for people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the Washington Post.
This leaves only 7,500 slots for refugees that do not meet those requirements. Ali Al Abboodi’s family hopes he makes it among them.
IMPACT ON LOCAL FUNDING
The 18,000 refugee limit is the second decrease in the cap since President Trump took office, and it’s the lowest cap since the resettlement program started in 1980, according to AP. Last year, the administration reduced the cap to 30,000. Twenty-seven agencies closed throughout the country, Tzul said.
“Now from 30,000 to 18,000, there are going to be some evaluations from local agencies about what is feasible,” Tzul said. Federal funding for these agencies is tied to the number of refugees they help resettle.
Last year the U.S. only admitted 22,900 refugees, according to a BBC report. This puts the U.S. behind Canada, which accepted 28,000 refugees last year.
In Idaho, 558 refugees have been resettled in 2019 so far, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees. In 2016, 1,110 were resettled in Idaho.
In addition to the cap, the Trump administration also signed an executive order allowing state and local governments the option to opt out of resettling any refugees at all. This ensures “that newly-arrived refugees are placed in communities where state and local governments are best-positioned to receive them,” according to the administration’s announcement.
Much of IRC’s funding comes from federal grants based on the number of refugees it serves, and Tzul expects to have “a wild ride to plan a budget when you don’t know if a major (funding) component is zero or is healthy.”
Still, Tzul said the agency has “no intention of going away.”
Before coming to Boise as refugees, the Al Abboodi family, two boys, two girls, Ahmed Al Abboodi and his wife, was living in Baghdad. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, the country became too dangerous for the family. In an interview on Thursday, Ahmed Al Abboodi said his brother was killed in the streets in Baghdad; at the time, he said, killings were normal.
“I thought I must keep my family safe,” Ahmed Al Abboodi said.
Ahmed Al Abboodi moved his family to Syria in 2006, at a time when the country was peaceful, he said. That changed when the Syrian civil war began in 2011. The family moved six times in their two years in Syria, trying to stay safe. Ahmed said he was most worried about his two boys, who liked to wander and play in the streets. While in Syria, one of his daughters got married.
After seven years in Syria, the family moved back to Iraq to await permission to become refugees in the United States. They received refugee status and flew to Boise in January 2014. Ali Al Abboodi’s case was separated from the rest of his family, but the plan was he would follow the family to Boise a few days later.
Ali Al Abboodi missed his first flight because of traffic and missed his second because of a car wreck, according to the family. After that, his case for refugee status was closed. In 2017, Trump restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, further hindering Ali Al Abboodi’s ability to travel to the U.S.
Ahmed Al Abboodi did not let the travel bans stop him from trying to get his son to Boise. He met with Crapo with his caseworker, and urged the senator to help his family. Crapo helped reopen Ali Al Abboodi’s case for refugee status.
Megan Schwab, community engagement specialist with International Rescue Committee in Boise, said the travel bans put strict time limits on people seeking refugee status. She said it is difficult to ensure all the requirements are met within the required time frame.
‘A HUMAN FACE’
Tzul said roughly half of the refugees who come through the International Rescue Committee are waiting to be reunited with their families.
“If folks can’t make it here, that means the families who make it here are separated from their loved ones,” she said. “Sometimes you will be expecting to be reunited with your spouse or your children, and now you might not be.”
Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said she got a call from a young refugee woman a few weeks ago; she said her father has all of his approval needed to come to the U.S. as a refugee. Wolfson said they are “really not sure how long it might take for her dad to get here, even though he has been approved.”
“It puts a human face to it, these are fathers, mothers, children,” Wolfson said. “Family unification is something everyone knows is important. ... To not have the option to see folks and children, that uncertainty is not good.”
Tzul said she has heard from refugee families in Boise who, because of the national conversation around refugees, feel “they are not a part of our community.”
“That is not true,” Tzul said. “What does it feel like to know that your community members are being turned away? Knowing that folks need safety and are being denied that safety.”
Tzul said she believes Idaho has grown more “mindful and welcoming” over the last few years to refugees, and it is “heartbreaking” to see the anxiety among refugees when a new cap is approved.
Ahmed Al Abboodi said he used to watch national news on TV — he particularly remembers watching as the two travel bans were implemented — but nowadays he said he generally avoids it.
He only cares about getting his son back.
Wolfson said not only do separated families suffer, but the whole state may suffer if fewer refugees are settled here.
The state has “built effective and efficient resettlement systems, to help people become self-sufficient and help them quickly start contributing to local economy,” she said.
Considering the state’s low unemployment rate, employers who are struggling to hire enough workers are watching the limit with concern.
“Immigrants and refugees are part of our communities and power our economy,” Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said in a statement. “Of the 8,100 jobs on dairy farms in Idaho, over 90% are filled by people born outside the U.S., including people who arrive as refugees. Without those jobs none of the other 31,300 supporting jobs would exist or the $10.4 billion in economic output in sales from the dairy industry.”
Wolfson said, “Refugees contribute to our communities. They are doctors and teachers, they own businesses and are neighbors.”
Tzul said it is important for people to know the bipartisan support historically for refugee resettlement.
She said Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush continued to set the same limits on refugees during their administrations, some of the highest limits in the refugee program’s history.
The Trump administration’s announcement last week says the cap “reaffirms America’s enduring commitment to assist the world’s displaced people, while fulfilling our first duty to protect and serve the American people.”
Last month, a group of retired military officers wrote a letter to the White House, asking the president to reconsider the cuts to the refugee program. They called the refugee program a “critical lifeline” for people who assist American troops and government officials abroad. The letter urged the administration to protect the “vital program,” mentioning its bipartisan support and its ability to reach “historic average admission” goals.
On Tuesday, the Church World Service delivered a letter to elected officials, signed by over 1,300 faith communities throughout the U.S. including Kris Nyman of Boise First Congregational Church, urging the administration to restore the nearly 40-year-old refugee program.
“As volunteers and community sponsors, we have given our time and resources to support refugees in their integration into the United States, and we can say, without question, that it has been a worthwhile investment. The refugees we resettled have become our coworkers, neighbors, and friends,” the letter said.
It also urged the administration to “return to the historic norm of setting a goal of resettling 95,000 refugees per year.”
The letter was delivered to Idaho’s congressional delegation: Sens. James Risch and Crapo, and Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson.