Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive action to block refugees from entering the country, saying he would ramp up screening immigrants.
“I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don’t want them here,” the new president said at the Pentagon after he swore in his Defense Secretary, James Mattis.
Trump said he wanted to make sure only immigrants who will support America and “deeply” love its people can enter the country.
The White House had not released text of the order by Friday afternoon, but for the past two days early drafts had leaked out of the administration. According to the documents, obtained by The New York Times, seven majority-Muslim countries are subject to a month-long ban on visas. They are Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
News of Trump’s anticipated order led to a Thursday rally in Denver. There, human rights activist Karak Miakol told The Colorado Independent that after being arrested and tortured in South Sudan, she fled to the United States three years ago with help from friends.
“I had to seek asylum, and It was not easy,” she said. Kiakol’s children still live in Africa and she’s trying to help arrange asylum for them, too.
The order would also halt refugees from anywhere from entering the U.S. for up to six months after which the U.S. would eventually cut the number of allowable resettlements by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000, according to the drafts. The reason is to protect America from foreign terrorists.
Syrian refugees, according to The New York Times, would be banned indefinitely.
Kiakol heard about the news by midweek and said she had already been in touch with her kids, who range from ages 5 to 18. She told them she wasn’t sure she would ever see them in America. They cried, she said.
On Thursday, Kiakol said part of what she was doing to help her kids eventually come to America was to speak out against Trump’s anticipated executive action. She was one of dozens of activists to rally in a park near the Denver statehouse.
“Without refugees, I believe there is no great America,” she told a small crowd, riffing on some Trump-style sloganeering.
Nadeen Indrahim, who runs a group called Colorado Muslim Connection that acts as a hub for Muslims in the state, was also at the rally. She says she recently spoke with a Colorado family from Syria who was worried they might be sent back.
“I get these phone calls every day,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Can he really do what he’s trying to do?’ They ask me, ‘Do the American people really think this way?’ They ask me, ‘Will my family come here, they’re expected to come here in two weeks?’ And I tell them I don’t know.”
‘Bracing for whatever’
Indeed, until Trump releases text of an order, there’s plenty of uncertainty.
That was on display in the offices of Lutheran Family Services in Colorado Springs, an organization that helps about 170 refugees resettle into the state’s second largest city each year.
On Wednesday morning Floyd Preston, the group’s program director, was still trying to get a solid read on how exactly any executive orders might affect his organization’s refugee and asylee programs.
“Our thought is individuals who are here already are solid,” he said from behind his desk at his downtown Colorado Springs office Wednesday. “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 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 he saw what Trump actually signed. 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.”
‘We started a new life here’
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 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 Friday, referring a request to the governor’s office.
Mutatz Said, a refugee from Iraq who resettled in Denver in 2014, said the order 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.
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 said. “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.”