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Refugees make their way to Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos in Belgrade, Serbia on Oct. 4, 2016.
Refugees make their way to Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos in Belgrade, Serbia on Oct. 4, 2016.  Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Obama Refugee Officials Worry About the Future Under Donald Trump

Updated: Jan 09, 2017 1:23 PM ET | Originally published: Jan 08, 2017

The past year had been tough for Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. Ever since the body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015, her office, which processed 84,995 refugee claims last year, has been caught in political crossfire.

Richard says she’s been challenged constantly about how her office does its job, from members of Congress and everyday Americans: Why does the U.S. does not welcome persecuted Christians? (It does.) Why won’t the government use the word “assimilate” when talking about resettlement? (“Integrate” is considered more appropriate; refugees don't have to abandon their culture to be resettled). She has been repeatedly accused of being naïve about the true intentions of the 10,000 Syrian refugees her office processed into the country last year; most of them women and children.

“I get these letters saying ‘Oh, you’re naïve, terrorists are going to use this program to infiltrate the United States,’” Richard said. “I don’t think I’m naïve. I’m looking at facts. The debate in the United States centers on this question of whether or not people should be afraid of refugees. I think not.”

The problem for Richard and her allies is that the next President of the United States, who will effectively run her office when she leaves on January 20, disagrees with that conclusion. President-elect Donald Trump was swept into victory after comparing Syrian refugees to snakes and calling for the banning of Muslims before backtracking. One of his major promises on the campaign trail was to cut admissions for refugees to Syria and institute tougher vetting on those seeking asylum in the U.S., particularly those from areas fighting terrorism. “If I win they are going back,” Trump said during a primary stop in New Hampshire about the refugees who have already been resettled.

Inside and outside of the State Department, those who handle work around refugee resettlement are worried about the future of their work in the Trump Administration. Many are working to share positive refugee stories with hopes of changing the hearts and minds of skeptics. While questions loom, the work continues—a little over 25,000 refugees have already been admitted to the U.S. since the beginning of the fiscal year—but on day one of the Trump administration things could change significantly.

For four decades, the U.S. has resettled refugees facing war and persecution into the United States, with countries of origin shifting depending on where conflict arises. According to Gallup, which has been gauging the American public's views on refugee admittance since World War II, American citizens have historically opposed the idea of resettling refugees though in many instances, including in 1979 when Indochinese refugees fled communist South Vietnam, Americans have said refugees would be welcomed in their communities. But t he U.S. resettlement program has historically had bipartisan support. "While immigration has been a divisive issue, the humanitarian resettlement of refugees has not," Galya Ben-Arieh, the director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University said via email.

In 2016, fear about whether or not those seeking refuge could pose a threat to national security lingered over discussions about refugees, even as President Obama and officials across the federal government sought to dispel common misconceptions. “Having seen so many people walking to Europe, people have this idea that people can just walk into the United States,” Richard says. After a slight shift in opinion in the wake of Kurdi's death, the majority of the public hardened on refugees after the terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, though the attackers were not refugees. In September 2015, the Pew Research Center recorded that about 51% of Americans supported the government's decision to accept more refugees in response to the European migrant crisis. Two months later, a Bloomberg poll found 53% of Americans wanted the U.S. to stop accepting refugees altogether. Governors in 30 states came out and said Syrian refugees were not welcome. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives passed a bill to restrict the number of refugees coming to America from the war-torn country.

Around that time, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, which houses the refugee admissions program and funds and manages the nine Resettlement Support Centers around world that prepare refugee applications, started playing defense. Richard and others on what she calls a “small, but mighty” in-house team sought out to explain how the multi-step, months-long process works. They explained how the United Nations’ refugee agency refers applicants to the U.S., their application is checked by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the U.S. intelligence community even before the Department of Homeland Security conducts an interview.

The office does not have a clear sense of what lays ahead under Trump, aside from statements he made on the campaign trail that signaled the refugee resettlement program would be scaled back under his administration. In a document president-elect Trump released in October outlining his first 100 days, he vowed to suspend immigration from "from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur." In December, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway suggested there had been no softening on that position in an interview Fox News. "You have countries that harbor, train and export terrorists ... ISIS said they would mix and mingle with the Syrian refugees," she said. "For all we know they are doing that and that is another problem. We just don't know who lives among us or who is migrating from country to country and what their intentions are."

In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. resettled 84,995 refugees—five short of the 85,000 person goal President Obama set at the beginning of the year. Ten thousand of those resettled were from Syria, mostly women and children fleeing the ongoing civil war that has ravaged the country. In October, President Obama set a new goal of resettling 110,000 refugees in 2017—a number that president-elect Trump can decide to either reduce or ignore. The goal functions as a ceiling that the country can’t go over, and Trump can change it once he is president without an act of Congress.

Officials at the non-government organizations that focus on humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement say they are cautiously hopeful that the new administration will continue supporting the world’s vulnerable. “The United States is a country of immigrants with a long, proud legacy of providing safe refuge for the world’s most vulnerable fleeing conflict and persecution,” said Jennifer Sime, the Senior Vice President of U.S. Programs at the International Rescue Committee. “While policy priorities remain to be seen, The International Rescue Committee hopes the new Administration and Congress continue America’s tradition of ensuring the most vulnerable among us have the support and opportunity they need and deserve.”

Jen Smyers the director of policy and advocacy for the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service, says the humanitarian organization is hopeful that once president-elect Trump and his cabinet and advisors are fully briefed on the vetting process he will shift his position. In the meantime, Church World Service is working on sharing refugees’ and volunteers’ stories through a digital campaign called #GreaterAs1. T hey’ve also been encourage partners across the country to reach out to local and national officials to share refugee success stories and comment on the impact of their work. The group also plans to have refugee presence at both the confirmation hearing of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as well as a women’s march planned for after the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump.

As Richard’s appointment comes to an end, she’s still working to get the word out about refugees. After a young Somali refugee carried out a knife attack at Ohio State University, she penned a letter to the editor to USA Today. “The biggest issue that I’ve tried to get across is that refugees are not terrorists,” she said. “They are the victims of terrorists, and victims of war, victims of persecution.”

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