‘Today is not about us’: Trump’s expected ban rocks Colorado’s refugee community

An anticipated executive action by President Donald Trump to limit who can enter the United States is reverberating across Colorado where nearly 2,000 refugees have settled within the past year.

The president plans a temporary halt on all refugees allowed into the U.S., and is imposing at least a month-long suspension on visas for anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen, according to an early draft obtained by The New York Times. Syrian refugees would face an indefinite banThe draft also says the United States would eventually cut the number of allowable resettlements by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000. The reason for the action, according to the early draft order, is to protect America from foreign terrorists. The president is expected to sign the order sometime in the next two days. 

Mutatz Said, a refugee from Iraq who resettled in Denver in 2014, said the news would be devastating to his friends who fled Iraq to Turkey and have been waiting for a few years now for their applications to come to the U.S. to be processed.

All they dream about is to come to the U.S. with their families and to live a good life, a safe life,” he told The Colorado Independent. 

From October to December of last year, about 550 refugees coming directly from other nations were resettled in the Denver metro area alone, according to data from the Colorado Office of Economic Security’s Division of Refugee Services. Another 60 or so were living in another state before arriving there. About 10 percent of the 550 arrived on special visas set aside for Iraqis and Afghans who assisted the U.S. armed forces or its embassies. Said, a civil engineer who worked for an American company, said he arrived on such a visa.

The largest group of refugees — about 120 people —  who arrived in the metro area in the last three months of 2016 came from Somalia, one of the countries also affected by Trump’s expected temporary visa suspension. Other groups represented in larger numbers include Afghans and those from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The arrivals also included 42 Syrians.

Arapahoe County, by far, is largest resettlement area in Colorado, followed by Denver and Adams County. Half of those who arrived in the Denver metro area in the last few months of 2016 were two-parent families with children.

In the federal fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, almost, 1,960 refugees were resettled throughout the state, according to the state refugee services office. The largest group, nearly one in five, came from Burma. The state’s refugee coordinator declined comment until Trump signs the actual order. 

In Denver, Jamie Torres, the director of the city’s office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, was still sorting through the language of the draft order. Her immediate, general reaction, she told The Independent, “is just a lot of worry about what this says to our immigrant and refugee population here in Denver. It is so off-base when it comes to creating a community that works for all residents, a community that prioritizes safety and success. It makes no sense to me that we we seek to exclude people rather than include them.”

About 170 refugees resettle in Colorado Springs each year, according to Floyd Preston, who directs programming for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains.

On Wednesday morning, as news of Trump’s plans were beginning to leak, Preston was still trying to get a solid read on how exactly they might affect his organization’s refugee and asylee programs in Colorado’s second-largest city.

“Our thought is individuals who are here already are solid,” Preston said from behind his desk at his downtown Colorado Springs office. “It would be catastrophic to remove all those individuals. We don’t suspect any of the people who are on the ground right now will be affected by this executive order. I think that would cause a major stir throughout the nation.”

Refugees come to the Springs largely from Iraq, Afghanistan, central African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and also from Colombia and Burma. They leave their countries because they’re fleeing persecution, can’t work legally in refugee camps, and want to resettle in the U.S. in search of a better life, says Laura Liibbe, who coordinates community programs for Lutheran Family Services.

The local group helps children and adults, and has a foster program for unaccompanied minors.

Despite Trump’s expected executive actions, Liibbe said nothing on her end has changed. The local refugee program will still welcome clients arriving this week no matter what.

But some refugees currently in the Springs could be affected by Trump’s actions if they have family members stuck overseas who are in the process of being re-settled here. Lutheran Family Services says it has about 100 more refugees in the pipeline until September.

“Are we bracing for whatever? I think we have to,” Preston said. “We just don’t know what that looks like.”

The countries facing the suspension of the issuance of visas to the U.S. in the draft order are majority Muslim— a reflection of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Throughout his successful bid for president, Trump floated a Muslim registry and an outright ban, something he later dialed back.

Arshad Yousufi, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, said he would put off commenting about executive action on refugees until something was signed by the president. But in general he said immigrants from Muslim countries tend to expect the worst from their government. In most Muslim countries, he said, whatever the government wants to do it does, and there’s not much that can stop it.

“Here we have the other branches of the government trying to moderate things from being done that are unjust or unfair or unconstitutional,” he said. “So once people realize that, they’re not so worried. … Things could still get crazy, but we’re going to wait and see. We’re not going to panic right now about this matter.”

As for Said, he said it took three years after he applied for his visa for him to finally reach the U.S. The reason it took that long, he said, is precisely because the security screening for refugees such as himself is already rigorous.

“They analyze our cases,” he explained. “They determine our support for the American government.”

Everyone he knows in his community is frightened right now, Said says.

“We started a new life here,” he told The Independent. “Our kids are in school. We have jobs. Some of us have [a] home. But today is not about us. It is about our relatives and friends back home, and about the people who are waiting in Turkey. They have been waiting day by day, hour by hour.”

Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.