TWIN FALLS — Throughout his campaign, the potential security risk posed by Muslim refugees was a persistent theme at President-elect Donald Trump’s rallies. He called for an end to resettlement of refugees from Syria and “terror-prone regions,” and said he wouldn’t resettle refugees in communities where they are not wanted.
So what will this rhetoric mean after he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20?
“I think everyone is in a mode of waiting and seeing of what might be the priorities of a Trump administration,” said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.
While nobody is jumping to conclusions, Reeves said, there is concern about whether “the rhetoric that transpired during the campaign could come into play. There’s certainly a lot of concern about the future of the refugee program, the future of immigration policy, the future of Muslims in our country.”
Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center and himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sounded optimistic about the future of the program he oversees. He followed the election closely, and he suspects Trump doesn’t want to end refugee resettlement but rather to ensure refugees are properly vetted and are people who will become good citizens.
“That’s what I want, too,” Rwasama said. “That’s what anyone wants.”
Rwasama attributed some of Trump’s rhetoric to the fact that, as a government outsider, he didn’t have access to classified information about the vetting process for refugees. Now that he does, Rwasama thinks Trump will keep the program.
“I think that now this program, he knows it better than before and now this program belongs to him,” Rwasama said.
The Obama administration has proposed resettling 110,000 refugees in the United States over the 2017 fiscal year, which started this Oct. 1, of whom 300 are expected to come to Twin Falls. Refugee resettlement has been a controversial issue around the country and the world as millions of refugees have fled the civil war in Syria, and it has factored into the local debate in Twin Falls more than in perhaps most places.
A movement to shut down the CSI Refugee Center started last year but failed to get enough signatures to force a countywide vote. The issue returned to the headlines over the summer, when news broke about a 5-year-old girl who had, authorities said, been sexually assaulted by three boys from refugee families at the Fawnbrook Apartments, bringing national media attention to Twin Falls, dominating City Council meetings for more than a month and prompting accusations of a cover-up and threats to local officials.
Throughout the campaign, the Republican president-elect criticized his opponent Democrat Hillary Clinton for supporting an increase in the number of Syrian refugees to be allowed in the country, saying it would put the U.S. at greater risk of terrorist attack. After the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, a policy he later walked back in favor of stricter vetting and temporarily banning people from countries like Syria.
Trump continued to speak about the issue at some of his last campaign stops in Minnesota and Michigan, pointing to a September stabbing attack committed by the son of Somali refugees at a Minnesota mall as justification and reiterating his pledge to suspend the admission of Syrians. Since then, some of Trump’s proposed appointments of hardliners on immigration and refugee resettlement to key positions, including naming former Breitbart head Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, have given hope to those who want him to follow through on his campaign pledges on these issues.
“Here in Michigan, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with the refugee program ... It puts your security at risk and it puts enormous pressure on your schools and your community resources,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan just before the election, Reuters reported. “A Trump administration will not admit any refugees without the support of the local community.”
There have been reports from some parts of the country of harassment of minorities, including Middle Eastern-looking people, since the election, but Rwasama said he has seen the opposite here — an outpouring of supportive telephone calls to the Refugee Center and trailer-loads of donations of coats, socks, shoes, kitchenware, and other items refugees need. Twin Falls, he said, has been an example other cities could model.
“The reaction I have seen with the community has actually come with material support,” he said. “And I do appreciate this community.”
It would take an act of Congress to abolish the refugee resettlement program entirely, and Trump hasn’t indicated that’s what he intends.
“I haven’t heard suggestions that we would let no refugees from (any) countries, just certain countries,” said Bill Smith, director of the University of Idaho’s Martin Institute, which studies war and peace.
But the president does have a lot of power to decide how many refugees will be allowed to enter the country, and from where. This year’s number of 110,000 refugees, of whom thousands are expected to come from Syria, is something Trump could change when he assumes office, Smith said.
“I’ll just say that under the current law, every year the president of the United States determines the need for protecting international refugees through resettlement programs,” Reeves said. “The number is established by the president.”
President George W. Bush imposed a temporary moratorium on refugee admissions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, during which time U.S. security officials reviewed and tightened vetting procedures, Reeves said.
“Using that as a precedent, I would say it’s possible that something like that could be implemented by a new administration, if that were the will of the administration,” Reeves said.
Wait and see
States and local governments have little control over refugee resettlement, a fact state and local officials in Idaho often point to when asked about the issue. Trump isn’t the only Republican politician who wants a greater local say. Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter called a year ago, after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, for “consideration ... to enabling states to opt out of the refugee resettlement program.” And U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has introduced legislation that would, among other provisions, let states and communities opt out of the program.
Labrador’s press office said he would work with the president-elect on the issue but didn’t directly address whether Labrador would seek to advance the particular proposals in his bill now that Trump will be president.
“Immigration reform is a high priority for 2017, for both Congress and our incoming president,” Labrador said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with President-elect Trump to secure our borders and implement a vetting process that ensures immigrants do not pose a security threat to the United States.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he doesn’t believe the Obama administration’s assurances that the security checks currently in place are adequate.
“I continue to believe that one of our strongest focuses needs to be … (to make sure) adequate and accurate vetting takes place,” Crapo said in mid-November.
Crapo said the Unites States should take in refugees from places like Syria, where conditions make it difficult for U.S. officials to verify people’s backgrounds and stories, only if officials can be sure the vetting process is strong enough.
“We should insist on an adequate vetting process,” he said.
Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, is waiting to see what Trump’s policies will be on both immigration and refugee resettlement. While the large role played by Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, in the local dairy industry is widely known, Naerebout said refugees in the Magic Valley are also an important part of the workforce both at some dairies and at food processing plants.
“The refugees are important to our community and bring value to our community,” he said.
There isn’t a visa program the dairy industry can use — dairy work is year-round, and the agricultural visa programs that exist now are for seasonal workers — and with unemployment in the Magic Valley below 3 percent, Naerebout said, any policies that lead to a smaller labor pool would have a negative economic impact not only on dairies but on other agricultural sectors, and on construction and the service industry, all of which employ many foreign-born workers.
“There are multiple job openings throughout the Magic Valley that are not being filled,” he said.
Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar said he would wait to see what sort of policies come next year.
“President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton said an awful lot of things about what they would do,” he said.
If participating in refugee resettlement becomes a local option, Barigar said, the community would have to discuss it — he doesn’t view it as a decision for him to make unilaterally. But he did express support for the program.
“I think it’s been successful,” he said. “I would hope that we would continue to have that opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have been through traumatic situations and allow them to move forward in living the American dream like the rest of us.”
Smith, the director of the Martin Institute, said letting communities opt out would be “a big policy change.”
There are “a lot of … groups who identify as strongly conservative who also feel strongly about maintaining a refugee program,” he said, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, some evangelical and Baptist churches, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Our state agencies and the city agencies have stayed remarkably strong in terms of their commitments as things have sort of evolved in terms of the conversations over resettlement in the past year-and-a-half,” he said.
Twin Falls County Commissioner Terry Kramer said whether to host a refugee resettlement program has “never been a choice for the county,” and that opting out would be “quite a dramatic change.”
“That’s something, I guess, we would have to discuss as a community if it became a choice,” he said.
From a county government perspective, Kramer said, the program’s effect has been neutral, probably no different than that of any group of people moving in.
“We see, probably, some indigent claims because of the program, but I think that we also see opportunities for these people to start successful businesses in the community and be productive members of the labor force,” he said.
Kramer credited this to the work of the CSI Refugee Center.
“If (there were) no support, if they were just dropped here, it would be very challenging,” he said. “But because they have that Refugee Center with all the support to try to transition people into our lifestyles, it’s a lot more helpful.”
Kramer said he expects to see better screening but also continued resettlement of some refugees. The U.S. has a particular moral obligation to help people who have to flee their countries because they were America’s allies, he said.
“You’re always going to have those refugees who stood up for our policies in their countries,” he said. “We just have to protect those people that protect us. I think it’s really important.”