Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
While many Americans reacted with general shock at President Trump's Jan. 27 executive order banning refugee arrivals in the United States, for Emily Crane Linn of Fayetteville the fear was more focused. "Immediately, I had a name, and I had a family that jumped to mind," she said. "I knew, 'Oh my goodness, they're not going to be able to come.' So it was sadness for them, it was sadness for our community."
As the director of Canopy Northwest Arkansas (canopynwa.org), a recently launched nonprofit that partners with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to resettle refugee families in the state, Linn's worries were soon realized. The Congolese family Canopy was hoping to bring to Fayetteville that week had its travel plan canceled by the U.S. Department of State. They were among tens of thousands of refugees, visa and green card holders whose lives were thrown into turmoil by Trump's sudden order.
Though many are familiar with the part of Trump's executive order instituting a 90-day ban on arrivals from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia and Yemen — a lesser-publicized provision of the order halted America's refugee resettlement program for 120 days for all nationalities. The day of the order, the Congolese family that Canopy hopes to resettle in Fayetteville was literally packed to travel to America, after weathering over a year of intense vetting by the U.S. By the time they started that process, they had been living in a refugee camp in Africa for 16 years.
"It was just canceled, just like that," Linn said. "That was obviously — I can only imagine that was disheartening to them." Soon after federal courts stayed Trump's executive order, the family's travel was rebooked. Barring another court ruling on the temporary stay, the family is scheduled to arrive in Northwest Arkansas this week. Canopy's staff, Linn said, is holding its breath.
"I need to be making arrangements for housing for this family," she said, "but I'm wary of doing so until I'm sure that they're coming. It's hard for the community mentor team to plan. It's hard for our staff to plan. We're all just being strung along. I think a lot of people feel that way. We're just waiting to see what tomorrow will bring and hoping we can roll with the punches."
Such is the miasma of confusion and fear that has clouded the day-to-day operations and future of Canopy, one of dozens of small refugee-resettlement agencies all over the country. Launched in October, Canopy has a staff of four and over 400 volunteers standing ready to assist newly arrived families in Northwest Arkansas. While the group had hoped to settle over 35 to 40 families a year — up to 100 individuals total — that mission is suddenly in doubt. Since its first clients arrived in December, Canopy has managed to resettle a woman from El Salvador, two families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and two families from Iraq. Other than the Congolese family Linn hopes will arrive this week and several other cases — all from the Congo — currently in the pipeline, whether Canopy will be able to help more is uncertain. While Linn said the organization will use any gap in arrivals to train staff and fine-tune procedures, Canopy's budget is largely dependent on a per-refugee payment from the U.S. government, buttressed by private donations from churches and individuals. If there is a wholesale shutdown of resettlement programs by the State Department, times may soon get very lean.
The State Department, Linn said, decides which refugees are coming and when, often after refugees have spent decades in relocation camps. In the case of the Congo — the country from which most refugees resettled in the U.S. have arrived in recent years, with 16,370 Congolese resettled in 2016 — the minimum wait Linn has seen was 13 years.
Once refugees make it to the step in which they're officially being considered for entry into the U.S., Linn said, the vetting process is "intense," involving a deep dive into a person's background by the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. "From the time that the United States begins considering you for admission until the time you get on a plane, you are checked and rechecked and rechecked," she said. "Your story is checked and rechecked, everybody in your family and you are interviewed multiple times, your name is run through a litany of databases, your biometric data is verified. It goes on and on. There are even health screenings you have to pass."
Once a person has been vetted, Linn said, the State Department coordinates with one of nine nonprofit resettlement agencies, including the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS works with a network of 28 nonprofits in 26 U.S. states. Once a refugee is assigned to a resettlement agency, Linn said, the group looks at its partners across the U.S. to see which would be the best fit.
Linn said that given the difficulty of gaining official refugee status — candidates have to prove they are being persecuted because of their personal identity or because they're part of a social group, not just fleeing danger and indiscriminate violence — the idea that terrorists would use refugee status to enter the U.S. rather than utilizing quicker and easier methods, like entering on a travel or student visa, is highly unlikely. While Linn said she hasn't gotten any indication that the U.S. is planning on shutting down the refugee resettlement program entirely, another section of Trump's executive order slashes the yearly number of refugee resettlements in the U.S. by over half, to 50,000 per year, down from 110,000 resettlements last year.
"We are struggling to know what the rest of this fiscal year looks like, because there's this potential ban, and no refugees means no funding," she said. "If we're talking about four months without refugees, that's four months without funding coming in to our organization from that funding source."
Linn said Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail was worrisome, but the nationalist and anti-immigrant statements he's made are even more concerning. "For whatever reason, this is a pretty recent thing that refugees have become kind of a scapegoat in the political world," she said. "I'm not exactly sure how and why that got started, but that's become kind of a worrisome trend among a variety of politicians. It wasn't just President Trump who was using that rhetoric during the campaign season. There were a lot of people who were."
The reason refugees want to come to America, Linn said, is that the country, as an entity, is highly venerated. The dream of millions around the world, she said, is to come here and make a life, and the refugees who weather the long process to do so are living that dream. She is worried about the damage that moves like Trump's executive order are doing to the country's reputation and standing around the globe, but she believes the status of the U.S. as a welcoming place will outlast the Trump era.
"I heard a story on NPR the other day about the Iraqis who were cooperating with the U.S. to retake Mosul from ISIS," she said. "They're baffled. They're saying: 'I thought America liked us. I thought we were America's partners.' I think it does raise questions, but I think ultimately, it's more the idea of America. It's hard for me to put it into words, but it's more about America as an ideal than a country led by one particular person. I think it's bigger than a president, and people see it that way."
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