From left, Biltn Abdo, Ramadan Ali, Fatuma Said and Hadiyia Abdulahi have an impromptu dance as the World Refugee Day celebration, put on by Colorado Refugee Connect, ends at Aurora City Center Park in Aurora on June 20, 2021. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)
As a member of the Denver Immigrant and Refugee Commission, Yusuf Hassan hears lots of stories from area refugees yearning for their family members abroad. In many cases, those family members have been screened and approved to enter the U.S. as refugees, but are waiting on the final OK from immigration authorities that would let them board a plane to Colorado.
“Even if you make it out yourself, and living in America … you still have a lot of sleepless nights, because you have loved ones that aren’t able to join you because of this process being super long and very rigorous, and not always easy,” explained Hassan, an Ethiopian refugee who resettled in California as a child before moving to Colorado. The process is “very competitive, too,” he added, “because there’s so many, way too many immigrants and refugees that are waiting for this opportunity.”
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Hassan noted that his own cousin, who fled political persecution in Ethiopia, has spent the last 10 years in Kenya waiting for his refugee application to be approved. Stuck in bureaucratic limbo, the cousin has been isolated from family that entire time, and meanwhile his father — Hassan’s uncle — recently died in Ethiopia, Hassan said.
Policy decisions by former President Donald Trump, and delayed action by President Joe Biden, lengthened the excruciating separations for many refugee families. Now, though, refugee resettlement agencies operating across the country are preparing to serve tens of thousands more people each year.
‘These numbers represent people’
“Under the Trump administration, the refugee resettlement program hit rock bottom,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national voluntary agency, or VOLAG, that receives refugees in the U.S. “President Trump didn’t just try to throw a wrench in the gears. He actively tried to disassemble the entire refugee resettlement infrastructure.”
Advocates for immigrants and refugees expected Biden to raise the annual cap on refugee admissions soon after taking office in January. Before Biden became president, Trump set the maximum number of refugees for 2021 at just 15,000 people. That was the lowest presidentially-determined refugee cap since the country’s refugee resettlement program was first established in 1980.
In a Feb. 12 report to Congress, Biden announced he’d increase the cap to 62,500 people for 2021. The State Department began booking flights for refugees, including from countries where Trump had restricted admissions. But months later, Biden still hadn’t signed the executive order that would officially raise the ceiling.
In the meantime, refugees who’d already been cleared overseas for admission to the U.S. were left in limbo. Hundreds of people had their flights canceled.
Biden shocked refugee communities and resettlement agencies when on April 16 he announced that the 15,000-person cap “remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” The administration would reverse Trump-era restrictions on refugee admissions from certain countries, however, Biden said at the time.
After backlash from some Democrats in Congress as well as immigrant-rights advocates, Biden reversed course. On May 3, he increased the maximum number of refugees allowed in the U.S. this year to 62,500 people.
“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden said in a statement at the time. “The new admissions cap will also reinforce efforts that are already underway to expand the United States’ capacity to admit refugees, so that we can reach the goal of 125,000 refugee admissions that I intend to set for the coming fiscal year.”
Sarah Gostenik, director of refugee and asylee programs at Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado, works with refugees in Greeley and Fort Morgan who’ve been separated from family members for years. In some cases, Biden’s hesitation in signing the executive order continued the separation, Gostenik said.
“We had one family actually just about to board the plane, and then were told they couldn’t come yet,” Gostenik told Newsline in late April. “This delay has really impacted their lives.”
Lutheran Family Services is one of three refugee resettlement agencies operating in Colorado; the others are the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s African Community Center and the International Rescue Committee. Those organizations, each tied to a national VOLAG, work with the U.S. government to help new refugees with housing and basic needs, cultural orientation, English classes, employment, health care and enrolling children in school.
Unlike immigrants who seek asylum status by turning themselves in to Customs and Border Protection officers at the border, or by applying from within the U.S., refugees must be screened and preapproved before they can travel to the country. The process can take years, and much depends on an administration’s immigration policies.
Refugee applicants, like asylees, must demonstrate a a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country based on race, religion, nationality or social group. The president sets the refugee cap each fiscal year, but there’s no official limit on the number of people who can receive asylum status in the U.S.
"It’s important when we talk about numbers to remember that these numbers represent people, families, and lives," Noyes Parker Combs, state refugee coordinator in the Colorado Refugee Services Program, said in an email. "For some Colorado refugee families, the delay in revising the previous Presidential Determination (PD), meant they were not able to reunite with their family members."
Combs added that the COVID-19 pandemic vastly decreased the number of refugees accepted so far this year.
"Nationally, there have been only about 2,334 arrivals," Combs said. "So while the increase from 15,000 to 62,500 arrivals is meaningful, what is most impactful is the revision of allocations from priority populations, back to regional allocations."
She referred to another stipulation of Trump's refugee policy, which Biden reversed with his April announcement. The refugee ceiling Trump set for fiscal year 2021 — which began Oct. 1, 2020 — prioritized refugees who were Jewish, Christian or adherents of certain other religious faiths; as well as Iraqi people with U.S. ties.
Trump restricted refugee admissions from Somalia, Syria and Yemen, which have large Muslim populations. Before Trump took office, around 11% of U.S. refugees came from Somalia, and 15% came from Syria.
Biden's policy will get rid of the prioritization structure implemented under Trump, instead dictating how many refugees the U.S. can accept from each region of the world.
That change will be huge for northern Colorado's Somali refugee community, Gostenik said.
"Here in northern Colorado, our Somali population was always close to No. 1" in terms of refugee arrivals before Trump took office, Gostenik explained. Under the policy change, LFS is "very hopeful" members of the Somali community can finally be reunited with family members.
Refugee resettlement agencies and nonprofits serving refugees have a big task ahead of them: ramping their services back up after Trump's austere immigration policies meant many agencies lost funding or didn't have enough work to justify staying open. Some offices closed in other states, but Colorado's three resettlement agencies remained open while Trump was in office.
"I don’t think nationwide, we’ll hit that (62,500) number, and I certainly don’t think in Colorado we will hit the number that we wish we could or hope that we could as far as resettlement," said Lisa Taylor, executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado.
After a new refugee arrives in the U.S. and is matched with a national agency, a state affiliate agency provides them with services including food, housing and job counseling for their first 90 days in the country. After one year in the country, they can apply for lawful permanent resident status, also known as a green card. Four years afterward, refugees become eligible to start the U.S. citizenship process.
Those first 90 days are when resettlement agencies kick into high gear. They set up apartments for new refugee families, pick families up from the airport, provide cultural orientation and language classes, and help them sign up for benefits programs and enroll children in school.
"Ramping up refugee admissions is certainly easier said than done," said O'Mara Vignarajah, of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS is the national VOLAG affiliated with Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains.
"It’s a massive challenge, and administrations rarely reach the annual admissions ceiling, but we believe there is both a will and enthusiasm to rebuild refugee resettlement that can help us quickly resurrect the program," she continued.
That will mean reopening local sites that closed during the Trump administration and rehiring staff members who were laid off due to funding cuts. Local agencies must reestablish relationships with refugee-friendly landlords and employers.
"It also takes time to recruit and train volunteers to help furnish apartments, drive refugee families to medical appointments, job interviews, English-as-a-second-language classes; and serve as their support network in the months and years to come," O'Mara Vignarajah added.
Agencies in Colorado consult with the state refugee coordinator to determine how many refugees out of the national total they should propose resettling this year, Combs said: "We look at availability of community resources as well as fiscal resources to ensure we can meet the needs of the numbers proposed as well as those already here."
Colorado normally accepts around 2% of U.S. refugees each year, Combs said.
"While CRSP is excited by the possibility of increased arrivals, we know that it won't happen overnight," Combs continued, citing challenges posed by the pandemic, and the need for agencies to expand their workforce and resources to accommodate more people. "We are currently looking at ways to support our network of service providers in preparation for new arrivals while still supporting community members already here."
Gostenik, of Lutheran Family Services, said her office is lucky because the staff has been working there a while.
"Most of us were working together in 2016 when we were resettling higher numbers of people," Gostenik said. "And we’ve been fortunate, too, to keep a robust volunteer support system."
Help on the way?
It's not just local and national agencies that have to get to work, O'Mara Vignarajah said.
"There needs to be a significant ramp-up in the refugee processing, including expanding referral pathways to the U.S. refugee assistance program, meaning this is how prospective refugees can become a part of the pipeline," she said. "We need to increase the efficiency of vetting and application processing without compromising stringent security and integrity standards."
Colorado's refugees are hurting while delays continue, Yusuf Hassan said.
In addition to his work on Denver's refugee commission, Hassan volunteers on the advocacy committee of Oromo Community of Colorado, a nonprofit that serves East African refugees and asylees, with an emphasis on members of the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia.
Over the past year, the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region weighed on the hearts of refugees in Colorado, while many lost work as Uber and Lyft drivers, housekeepers and restaurant staff due to the pandemic, Hassan said.
"Their families that are in Ethiopia are suffering daily, and there’s a lot of people that have actually lost their loved ones only in the last couple of weeks at the hands of these militaries," he said. "Until they get their families here with them, they can never, never find that peace and that safety even though they’re physically further away from that situation."
The U.S. prioritizes admitting refugees who already have family members in the country. With a higher refugee ceiling, some families could finally be reunited in the near future.
But with instability in parts of Africa, the Middle East and South America, Hassan called 62,500 potential refugee admissions "a drop in the bucket." And Biden has cautioned that he doesn't expect the U.S. will meet that ceiling by the end of the year.
"Until we see the first flow of activity around refugees really coming into the country, I can’t really celebrate anything," Hassan said.
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