Photo courtesy of ABC Denver7 News.

Following the executive order on Jan. 27 this year, which banned immigrants, refugees and several other demographics from traveling to the US from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Lebanon, there has been a great deal of political upheaval and legal dispute regarding the constitutionality of the ban, leaving the ban frozen in the process of appeals, and the country intensely debating this type of executive measure in the name of national security. As President Donald Trump prepares, per his announcement, to rescind the ban and replace it with one “tailored” to comply with the breaches found by the courts, the students of Jewell have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the landscape of asylum in the Kansas City area, the evolution and treatment of the first ban and what might be expected from the second.

The Ban

The first ban was released on Jan. 27, in the form of an executive order. The ban was needed, according to its text, 

In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. 

Stating further

The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.

The countries targeted by the order were Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Lebanon. In those countries, the ability to travel to the US was revoked from those traveling for business, leisure, as students or the family of a student, temporary workers, fiancés of US citizens, new immigrants and refugees. Immediately following the announcement and signing of the ban, protests broke out in major airports across the country, condemning the order as un-American in its spirit, inhumane in its condemnation of asylum seekers and destructive as pertains to American foreign relations. The president responded with an insistence that he acted in the interest of national security, as has been his repeatedly expressed intent form the inception of his political persona during the campaign.

These initial declamations, however, were followed by much more focused scrutiny. One major point of concern for some was what seemed to be a religious lilt to the function of the order. Reminders began to resurface of comments the president made on the campaign trail about the need for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our Country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

The idea that a religious sect with a long history of practice should be singled out as a target of executive control, at least to the circuit court in Washington, which halted the implementation of the ban in that state, was highly unsettling. In appealing to this allegation, the administration pointed out that only seven of over forty Muslim-majority nations around the world are targeted in the ban, then reiterated that the ban was made in the interest of national security. The problem continued, though, regarding the declared intent to exempt Christians persecuted in those countries. The president stated that Christian victims had been ignored in favor of Muslim asylum seekers and were being more severely persecuted. The numbers out of Syria, for instance, show that approximately 98 percent of refugees being taken on from that country are Muslim while Christians number in the area of 1%. Notably, these numbers are approximately reflective of the general population

These allegations aside, the administration was also questioned for the specific selection of countries targeted in the ban. Of the seven, not a single country has produced a perpetrator of lethal terrorism in the United States for over a decade. On the other hand, several nations in the region, frequently linked with radical Islamic terrorism do not appear on the ban.

Saudi Arabia is one of several nations that have been identified. The country was home to 15 of the 19 terrorist who carried out the 9-11 attacks. During her most recent presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton alleged that Saudi nationals, or the national government, were providing direct financial support to IS. Clinton’s and other such claims have been refuted by Saudi officials. It is, in any case, well know that Wahhabism, a highly conservative Islamic theology which condemns all religious sects – Muslim or otherwise – outside of its system as heretical, rose to prominence in Saudi Arabia. The founder of the sect is considered in large part responsible for the rise of the Saud family and the creation of the monarchy which has ruled the vast majority of the Arabian Peninsula for nearly 200 years, by combining his Salafism with an apolitical attitude favorable to absolutist rule. From this Wahhabist tradition has stemmed a brand of jihadi Salafism with close ties to current groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. This observation is often rebuffed with reminders of the strong official ties of the Saudi government to our own.

But Saudi Arabia is not on the list of noted omissions. Egypt has also been raised as a potential security threat. In the past seven years, Egypt has seen three entirely different governmental structures in power. It was in 2011 that Hosni Mubarak was ousted in one of the defining popular coups of the “Arab Sprint”. Then, after only a year, his democratically elected successor, Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a secularist-militarist coup led by current leader and commander Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi, who is facing heavy dissent from the Egyptian people for strong authoritarianism, which he claims is necessary to hold strong radical actors at bay throughout the country. In addition, two of the remaining four of the 911 perpetrators, large portions of rank and file ISIS fighters and a number of Al-Qaeda leaders have come from Egypt.

Beyond that, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates – the countries home to the two remaining 911 hijackers- have been left out of the ban; the latter of the two also falling under another category critique surrounding the ban. The UAE represent one of several middle eastern nations not touched by the ban, among them the UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, in which the Trump family has major financial investments.

Responses again center around insistence that the ban was made in the interest of national security and that the countries just mentioned are, for the most part, major US allies.

In the midst of the debate, arose the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, halting the ban after an appeal to the Washington decision. The decision centered around proclamations that

[We] hold that the Government has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal, nor has it shown that failure to enter a stay would cause irreparable injury, and we therefore deny its emergency motion for a stay.

And that

The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.

It is in response to this judicial condemnation that the president has announced the creation of a new order, which is to be released in the near future.

The People

Amidst this ongoing debate, it may serve Americans to direct some attention to the refugees in their own community, as well as the process required to be accepted into the country under refugee status.

The process consists of thirteen steps, as outlined by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

  1. An individual is qualified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a refugee (A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.)
  2. The individual is referred to the US the UNHCR, a qualified NGO, or a US Embassy
  3. Background information for a security check is then compiled by a resettlement support center.
  4. Multi-layer, inter-agency security checks are conducted.
  5. Some applicants will then be checked again through a more thorough vetting process.
  6. Of age applicants are registered and fingerprinted
  7. The individual will be interviewed by Department of Homeland Security officials, who travel to the country of asylum.
  8. The individual will be conditionally approved, subject to the results of the security checks
  9. Medical examinations are administered
  10. A Sponsor Agency is found
  11. Cultural orientation is undergone
  12. By this time, it is usually necessary to do another security check to ensure that, during the extensive process, the individual has remained qualified under the security clearances
  13. The individual is admitted into the united states

To better understand this process, and conditions of refugees in the Kansas City Area, “The Monitor” sat down with Mr. Steve Weitkamp, Director of Refugee Resettlement Services at Jewish Vocational Services – one of several humanitarian organizations working with refugees in KC.

To lead off we discussed the development of refugee relations in the US. Weitkamp made a point of noting that many Americans are, as far as he can tell, are under the impression that for better or for worse, “US immigration policy is chiseled onto the base of the Statue of Liberty”, which, he says, it is certainly not. For most of US history, official attitudes towards immigrants were either ambivalent or “arguably shameful” Weitkamp referred then to the Chinese, who were involved in railroad work during the mid 19th century, and were largely denied citizenship, or reentry following departure from US Soil.

The real shift seemed to come around a century later, in response to the M.S. Saint Louis debacle. The St. Louis was a German passenger vessel which sailed from Hamburg in 1939 holding around 1000 passengers, almost entirely German Jews. The west largely ignored their plight, and after making the voyage to Cuba and being denied entrance into the harbor in Havana, they were rejected at US ports. Ultimately, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where several continental nations, along with Great Britain, admitted the passengers. As a result, it is estimated that around a third of the passengers, among those who disembarked on the continent, were later captured and killed in Nazi death camps.

Following the war, the tone which the US took toward refugees responded largely to the horror of the holocaust and the pre-war hesitance which the world had shown the Jews, largely characterized in the Saint Louis affair.  

Even then, however, the system was usually ad hoc. When conflicts arose and refugees were the byproduct, the government would appropriate the necessary structures and resources and take on whatever it saw fit to undertake, where after the system would dissolve. Then, following the Vietnam War, the tone changed. The government realized that it might bear some moral obligation to the protection of citizens endangered by its military engagements – or possibly that it stood to gain from a display of virtue in the fight against soviet communism. This went on through the Cold War – now from southeast Asia, now from the Eastern Bloc, now from the middle east.

To facilitate this ongoing engagement, the Voluntary Agency (VolAg) system was conceived as a public-private partnership that would be installed as an ongoing arm of US international relations. Effectively, the system is a private humanitarian network overseen by the State Department to organize refugee management services. It is “private at both ends”, with some agencies dealing with the identification and appeals process, who then report work with federal officials on the first 12 of the thirteen steps, then, after officials have vetted and approved a case, the refugees are turned over to one of nine or ten (depending on the year) humanitarian organizations stateside. These include organizations like Church World Services, Hebrew International Aid Society, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other (secular) agencies.  These VolAgs then assign cases to one of the subsidiary organizations in their network according to their location.

This brings us finally to Kansas City. In the area we have three major subsidiaries : Jewish Vocational Services, Catholic Charities and Della Lamb Community Services. Each works with resettling refugees.

Weitkamp also helped to clarify the political and cultural climate, as well as the economic dynamic experienced by refugees when entering the country. As far as initial integration, there are certainly not the same barriers here that refugees might face elsewhere in the world – especially in Europe, where racial diversity on most of the continent is relatively low. It is highly different here from a place like Germany, where one can very often identify a refugee by his physical appearance. In the US most people couldn’t separate a native from a foreign national unless they spoke, at which point it is still unclear until it is made explicit whether they are a traveler, immigrant, temporary worker or refugee.

The greatest cultural challenge in the long term, says Weitkamp, is, interestingly enough, seldom food, clothing, religion, politics, gender, race – but capitalism. There is an acute need for refugees to make quick and lasting adjustments to American capitalist culture in order to survive. That goes for everyone. For some it is strange to experience so much economic freedom, for others so much existential fragility.”

The culture of this country is largely capitalistic… one component of our particular society is basically official – most times –  official indifference…  we will let people succeed to the point, you know, where they own a company that shoots things into space, but we will also let them fail to the point where they are on the corner with a cardboard sign.”

Accordingly, there are some basic rules to follow, which were apparently largely picked up on by, for instance, the Vietnamese community who came after the war. It is extremely important to have a support group, usually a family. That family then has to be employed as soon as possible with their incomes, not individually counted, but as a household. The target should be a house in an area with good schools, and then you work for your children, who are the focal point of the refugee integration. It can be shocking to those coming to the US as professionals – lawyers, doctors, engineers of all kinds – because their certifications are effectively meaningless; and unless they are fluent in English, they are candidates for, at best, entry level jobs. So the focus must be on the children.

Throughout this process, services like JVS are there to help. These services, largely the same in terms of receiving refugees, are organized to connect immigrants with employers, to find housing that will be feasible in the long term, to help in managing finances, including support payments that will come for a few months following arrival. The objective for these organizations is to prepare these refugees for a sustainable and stable life in America.  

It was discussed whether or not, in doing this, there is much exchange with local government. As far as relations with the government go within the city, local government is apparently rhetorically supportive, but actively ambivalent, which Weitkamp says is ideal. On the national level, however, things have indeed become tricky. JVS, Catholic Charities, Della Lamb – their work, and their impact – tend to remain, to their pleasure, “under the horizon”. Their intentions are humanitarian, and generally apolitical. They rarely – if ever – enter the arena. However, they are not immune to their environment. In reference to threats from the current body politic, Weitkamp identified an obscure consequence that could have a lasting impact on the refugee situation in the United States. What will kill these agencies is not bad press, but numbers. When working with refugees, many of the aforementioned demoted professionals are picked up and given work within the organization. Over time, this raises them to their previous employability status. It can sometimes increase it. Once the learning of English is facilitated, and stateside work experience is collected in a business that demands adaptability and a range of skills, like that of humanitarian non-profit work, these multilingual refugees are excellent job candidates. Many of the Americans working with the agencies pick up the same skills.

Now it is not uncommon that slow periods come, and bring with them furlough and temporary leave. These periods are manageable – but when the president moves the ceiling of refugee admissions from 100,000 yearly to 50,000 yearly, JVS, CC, Della Lamb – they will have nothing. No cases to work, and none of the commensurate funding from DHS. Those highly desirable humanitarians who have made their operations possible will not be able to stand a furlough for as long as would be necessary. They will not be able to wait until this drought passes. They will go elsewhere, and their current employers face disappearance. If this is a national phenomenon, which is not unimaginable, then the refugee lobby in D.C., which Weitkamp said has done a great deal to keep the system running smoothly for the past four decades, will weaken. This thriving humanitarian effort, which has worked for since we left Vietnam, will spiral out of effectuality, and into memory.

The nation’s eyes will be on Washington D.C. in coming days. They will be looking for pattern and reason in the president’s management of their security. They will be looking for dissent, for loopholes and oversteps and the eyes of those who work in the system which manages this process, will be looking for the augers of their fate.

 

If there are readers who would like to know more about their local organizations, or national numbers and processes, the following links are provided.

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