Every year as the holidays roll around, Refugee Services of Texas, one of the state's main resettlement agencies, hosts parties for its recent arrivals, welcoming them to their new home. This year, those parties are bigger than ever, and serve a more critical function: to assure refugees they can remain in the United States.
"After the election, we've heard a lot of concerns both from our clients and staff, many of whom are former refugees. We've had people asking if they'd be sent back to refugee camps overseas," Aaron Rippenkroeger, the president and CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, told me. "So we've expanded our holiday activities to include more people, and we're doubling down on the message that getting sent back is not on the table."
Resettlement agencies in Texas—and other states with governors who have fought to block refugees—are working harder than ever to soothe their clients in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, who pledged during his campaign to severely restrict refugees from settling in the US. Now, as resettlement agencies try to keep a calm face, they also brace for a possible halt on the country's refugee program, which advocates warn could cause a humanitarian disaster.
The president-elect has kept quiet about his resettlement plans since his election, and his press office did not return requests for comment. But during his campaign, Trump vowed to suspend the acceptance of all Syrians and to stop sending refugees to any community that opposed them.
"A Trump administration will not admit any refugees without the support of the local community where they are being placed," Trump said just three days before the election in a Minnesota campaign speech. He added that the state had "suffered enough" since Somali refugees began arriving. Later, after a Somali refugee attacked students at Ohio State, Trump tweeted that the 18-year-old "should not have been in our country."
If a Trump administration does decide to block refugee resettlement in certain communities, the move would be unprecedented. Currently, the Office of Refugee Resettlement places refugees throughout the country with the help of national NGOs under the federal refugee resettlement program. States cannot turn away refugees, even if their communities don't want them.
But recently, dozens of governors have fought resettlement—perhaps most notably Texas governor Greg Abbott, who announced this fall that his state would pull out of the federal refugee resettlement program. Abbott's withdrawal, largely seen as a political move, can't actually prevent new refugees from coming to Texas. But some warn that the Trump administration could cut services and funds, effectively gutting these programs.
"If the services we provide now were to stop, it would be a humanitarian disaster," Rippenkroeger told me. "There would be people homeless, without medical coverage and food. It would be a very direct human catastrophe so we can't afford for the program not to be fully functional."
Under the current resettlement program, new arrivals receive housing and minimal financial aid for their first several months in the US ($1,000 for a family of five to last their first four months, and then $400 a month for four more months). Twenty thousand refugees are scheduled to receive such support in Texas over the course of fiscal year 2017, which started in September, Rippenkroeger told me. Texas is slated to receive about $100 million in federal funds for refugee resettlement in 2017, he said.
"These are the most vulnerable people, who just arrived in the country and are trying to learn English and find jobs," Rippenkroeger said of the individuals receiving support. "There's no amount of fundraising we could do to replace federal support."
Amid the uncertainty, Rippenkroeger said the Office of Refugee Resettlement was working with a "nose to the grindstone approach" in setting up a system to distribute federal funds through the Texas NGOs.
"The federal authorities we're working with now are pretty calm," Rippenkroeger said. "They recognize changes will be coming to personnel and leadership, but like us, they recognize the program needs to be functional by February 1."
A spokesman for the US State Department told me in an email that President Obama set global refugee resettlement targets and regional allocations for 2017 in September, but that the State Department could not speculate on the plans of President-elect Trump.
Texas is not the only state in transition: Maine governor Paul LePage withdrew from the federal refugee resettlement program last month, claiming in a letter that he had "lost confidence in the federal government's ability to safely and responsibly run the refugee program." But a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine—the only NGO running the state's resettlement—told me she refused to ponder changes that could come with the Trump administration.
"We're in a transition period to have the funds come to us, and we're in contact with the Office of Refugee Resettlement every day," Judy Katzel, Catholic Charities Maine's chief communications officer, told me of the federal refugee aid. "For us in Maine, our program is business as usual. There's an awful lot of rhetoric in any campaign, and at this point, there's no way to speculate what will actually happen."
Refugee advocates in other parts of the country where anti-refugee sentiment is common displayed similar reserve when I asked them about Trump's resettlement plans. Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc.—the organization that sued Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and vice president-elect, for trying to block Syrian refugees from the state—told me he was hopeful.
"Currently, we have not received any word from our national partners or the State Department on how the incoming Trump administration will run the federal government's refugee resettlement program," Varga told me in an email, declining to comment on the lawsuit. "We are hopeful that the program continues unaltered as it is a critical program that truly shows the world the generosity and humanitarianism of our country, no matter the race, religion, or group one belongs to."
Even if Trump allows certain communities to pull out of resettlement, he can't stop refugees from moving states after arriving in the US—which means the most significant difference may be the money states receive, noted Erol Kekic, executive director of the national resettlement agency Church World Service.
"Immigration is a federal matter, and if the nation continues to admit refugees, they're free to go wherever they want the moment they arrive," Kekic told me. "They may not receive services, but they're free to move—so even if Governor Abbott says he wants none in Texas, how will he know a refugee won't move to Texas?"
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Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images