BOISE — There will still be plenty to do at the Idaho Office for Refugees on Monday morning, helping people who already live here.
What the office won’t be doing anytime soon is greeting new refugees at the airport and helping them start their new lives in America.
“We will have our hands full making the best of a bad situation,” Idaho Office for Refugees Director Jan Reeves said.
President Donald Trump on Friday signed a far-reaching executive order that ends all refugee resettlement for four months while changes are made to the screening process, bans all travel from seven Middle Eastern and African countries for 90 days and suspends any resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely.
When the four-month moratorium is lifted, only 50,000 refugees will be allowed to resettle in the fiscal year running from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017, as opposed to the 110,000 that former President Barack Obama would have allowed.
And the order says to prioritize, as much as legally possible, “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In the case of people from the Middle East, this would mean prioritizing in the future Christians and other non-Muslim refugees over Muslim ones.
“This is not the American way,” Reeves said. “It’s discrimination in terms of religion and national origin, and it’s very troubling.”
Reeves said “the president certainly has every right to examine (the vetting process) and improve it where he thinks he can,” but the one in place now, which includes security checks by multiple agencies and takes 18 months to two years on average, is “really quite robust.”
Boise and Twin Falls are the two cities in Idaho where refugees are resettled, and while refugee resettlement has been a controversial issue throughout the United States, the controversy started earlier and burned hotter in Twin Falls than most other places.
“We did hear back from a lot of people in the Magic Valley who were very concerned and wanted something done,” Lindsay Nothern, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said Friday evening.
A movement started to shut down the refugee center in Twin Falls, which is run by the College of Southern Idaho, in 2015, after news came out that some Syrians could be among the refugees to be resettled. No Syrians have been sent to Twin Falls, although some have been resettled in Boise. Supporters of shutting down the refugee center couldn’t get enough signatures to get a ballot initiative in 2016, but the controversy flared up again over the summer after news came out about a young girl who, authorities said, was sexually assaulted by three boys from refugee families.
Throughout his campaign, Trump talked about the potential security risk posed by Muslim refugees, calling for an end to resettlement of refugees from Syria and “terror-prone regions” and saying he wouldn’t resettle refugees in communities where they are not wanted.
Reeves said the political rhetoric surrounding the issue has been a cause for concern for some of the refugees he has talked to.
“This isn’t new,” Reeves said. “There’s been an anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment in this country for some time growing in certain circles. Refugees hear that and they begin to wonder if they’re still welcome in their communities, if people will consider them outsiders and not feeling welcome … in our communities. It’s a cumulative effect. It’s not just one particular action taken by the Trump administration.”
At the same time though, he said, many more people have also been offering support and expressing interest in helping refugees.
“Even though we have a certain element in our society that are fearful, we also have hundreds and thousands of people who are stepping up every day to say ‘What can we do to help,’” Reeves said.
Nothern said he hadn’t yet asked Crapo about the executive order specifically. But he did point back to Crapo’s past statements that he supports stronger vetting while opposing blanket bans on people from certain countries — which is what Trump’s order does — as well as his past support for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s call in November 2015, in the wake of a terrorist attack in Paris, for a halt to refugee resettlement until the vetting process can be improved.
“We heard throughout the state at all the town meetings we did that people were concerned about the process,” Nothern said.
Twin Falls’ state lawmakers have generally taken a middle line on the program, echoing concerns Republicans throughout the country have expressed about the screening process and sometimes calling for it to be slowed. No local lawmakers have called for a complete end to refugee resettlement.
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said on Friday that when the issue became controversial in Twin Falls he even tried to plan a trip to the camps in neighboring countries where Syrian refugees are living, to get a better grasp on how the vetting process works, but he wasn’t able to arrange it with the State Department.
“I think that the vetting needs to be improved,” Clow said. “Whether or what they can do a better job (with) ... I don’t know.”
Clow said he isn’t opposed to suspending resettlement from certain countries. There are refugees in plenty of other places who need help too, he said.
“We can bring in refugees from other parts of the world,” he said.