2017 was an “uncertain” year for refugees in Denver and across the country

This year has seen an unprecedented amount of instability in terms of refugee resettlement in the United States under President Trump’s administration: three travel bans, three halts and two blocks on those bans, a Supreme Court ruling on the ban, the resettlement ceiling dropping from 110,000 to 50,000 refugees, families expecting to arrive in Denver and then having their plans cancelled, families expecting to receive their relatives and finding out it might not happen. The list goes on. 

We’re providing a look back at the year for refugees in Denver as a framework on what’s happened in 2017.

By Katelyn Skye Bennett  |  Graphs by Alison Cox

What Makes a person a Refugee? 

There are three groups of people who may receive refugee services.

Refugees

According to the 1980 Refugee Act, a refugee is “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

In order to be granted refugee status by the UNHCR, refugees undergo interview upon interview. The U.S. is cautious and selective with who it takes from this pool. Per its refugee program, refugees are processed overseas before being approved to migrate to the United States. They undergo intense screenings, including health tests and fingerprinting, before being approved.

Asylees

Asylees compose a smaller portion of people fleeing persecution. They may enter the United States under another status, such as a student or with a tourist visa, then request asylum. They may also walk up to the country’s border, having sneaked on planes or boats or hiked through many countries to arrive, and declare that they’re fleeing persecution and would like to request asylum. 

By requesting asylum, they are applying from within the country while still under the same guidelines as refugees, and their cases are taken to court. Based on that decision, asylees are either granted asylum and can seek to resettle in the U.S. as citizens or are deported back to the violence from which they fled.

SIVs

The third category of people who receive refugee services are SIVs. SIV stands for Special Immigrant Visa and includes only Afghans and Iraqis who have worked alongside the U.S. military. One condition of being a SIV is that a person has fought against their country. But in certain circumstances, this prohibits entry by people who have served the United States by fighting against the regimes in their countries. Hence, the exception was made where such Iraqis and Afghans could apply for SIV status.

When the media mentions numbers of refugees being cut, that only refers to the first category. Thus, up to 45,000 technical refugees will be allowed to resettle in this country during the 2017-18 fiscal year. 10,000 SIVs are allowed to resettle as well, and asylees come on a case by case basis.

The Slash in Arrivals

There are 22.5 million refugees in the world today, and that number is only growing. According to the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR), “20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.” 

Less than one percent are ever resettled, but the United States is one of 37 countries with formal refugee resettlement programs. The Denver metro area, as well as Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Fort Morgan, are hubs for some of these refugees who make it to the United States.

In fiscal year 2017, the ceiling was set at an unusually high 110,000 refugees under President Obama due to the Syrian refugee crisis but was cut to 50,000 under President Trump’s administration. African Community Center (ACC) in Denver expected to resettle 625 refugees but only helped 400. Project Worthmore in Aurora, which works to support newly resettled refugees, was expecting to work with 2,000 clients this year but now expects to reach only 1,300 according to co-founder and Executive Director Frank Anello.

Nonetheless, volunteer support exploded once Trump became president, and on World Refugee Day in June, Governor Hickenlooper said that Colorado will continue to welcome refugees. According to Anello, Project Worthmore went from seeing roughly 12 or 13 volunteers for their monthly orientation being forced to place a cap of 50 volunteers for each orientation. He directly attributes the rise to the national atmosphere and executive decisions under President Trump.

Despite the bans, budget cuts, and a low ceiling of 45,000 allowed arrivals for Fiscal Year 2018, refugee resettlement agencies and their volunteers in Denver have continued to do just that.

The Slash in Funding

Along with the number of newly arrived refugees slash came cuts in funding. Refugee resettlement agencies receive money from the state, allocated to programs such as Reception and Placement, or R&P. They also receive grants for certain positions, which should not have been affected at the local level. This past year, agencies have been forced to lay off employees due to the cut in refugees resulting in less work. 

In one example, Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains in Denver (LFS) recently lost funding for Job Club, a program that prepares newly arrived refugees for the American workforce and teaches self-sufficiency. The once bustling class now serves only a handful of men and women due to the trickle of incoming refugees who need jobs. 

According to Managing Director Melissa Theesen, ACC’s programs were not dramatically affected, and some, in fact, have grown dramatically. ACC is one of the three refugee resettlement agencies in Denver, with International Rescue Committee (IRC) being the third and newest. As less refugees are coming, ACC is taking the time to develop more holistic services to the refugees already here and is growing We Made This, its sewing enterprise, as well as a couple of thriving youth programs.

Both LFS and ACC did have a season of layoffs at the beginning of the year.

Where We’ve Been

If 2017 could be captured in a word, it might be “uncertain.” 

Theesen said, “Following the first ban, when there were six countries that were banned for 90 days and there was Syria, which was banned indefinitely, I had a meeting with a group of refugee community members, and they—especially the Syrians when we talked about the fact that their country was indefinitely banned—you can imagine the emotion that accompanied the conversation.”

“There was a lot of concern, can I leave the country and come back? Can my family ever get here? Should I just go somewhere else entirely? Just a lot of questions in that space. We did know of some people who were overseas, and so would they be able to get back in if they were from one of the banned countries?” Theesen said. 

Anello saw much of the same at Project Worthmore. He recalls the atmosphere in the days after the first travel ban was announced as “Terrified, crying, upset. [Refugees] hoping they would be able to have their families come here and thinking they’ve made it.”

Now, he says chaos and uncertainty is becoming the new normal. “It’s still challenging to think of not being wanted or accepted in a country you were so excited to go to,” he said. “And that’s kind of the environment we’re in now.”

The amount of hate crimes, or bias-based crimes, towards refugee populations is uncertain as well. It is well known that hate crimes go underreported. In fact, the State of Colorado does not record hate crimes based on refugee status, although it does record crimes based on race, ethnicity, and religion. Thus blatant discrimination against refugees remains uncounted. 

The most recent FBI numbers, from 2016, do not record much change in state-wide hate crimes since the previous year. In fact, they have decreased over the past decade, although they increased by 4.6 percent on a national scale from 2015 to 2016. There is some concern that Colorado numbers are not being reported accurately or at all, however, as they were turned in by a mere 15 percent of reporting law enforcement.

In addition to hate crimes toward individuals, systemic discrimination against refugee populations has skyrocketed under the current administration.

As of October 24, towards the start of the new fiscal year, the most recent travel ban barring people from eight countries was halted. However, eleven undisclosed countries are now undergoing a 90-day review. Additionally, refugee screenings, which had already included “eight U.S. federal government agencies, six different security databases, five separate background checks, four biometric security checks, three separate in-person interviews, and two inter-agency checks” before refugees could step foot in the country, according to the UNHCR, have been tightened to gather further information.

Where We’re Going

When asked how LFS gets through times like these, Koehler Blanchard replied, “We just serve the people who are here and do our best.” The agency focuses on outreach and helps reunite families. Koehler Blanchard also encouraged people to reach out to community officials.

“You do what you can,” she said. “This is part of who we are as Americans, and it shouldn’t be political. It’s just helping the other.” 

The attitude at Project Worthmore is the same. As policies continue to rapidly change at the national level, Anello said the organization strives to be as fluid as possible. 

“There is so much unknown in how to be prepared for what’s ahead,” he said. They, and the refugees they work with, simply do whatever they can on a day-to-day basis.

Part of that, he said, involves working as a “village” with the ACC, IRS, LCC and other resettlement organizations and refugee settlement services. “There are so many partners who are tighter now over the last year,” he said. 

“Refugees are survivors. They bring a whole host of skills,” Koehler Blanchard explained. “They’re human, and they bring assets to the U.S. and help propel us as a country forward.”

Theesen agreed that “refugees do in fact add incredible value to our communities, not only just bringing culture and new languages and new experiences, diverse experiences, but adding to the central components like our workforce and so much more.” She hopes that the United States can remain a “beacon of hope” and continue to welcome refugees from around the world. ■