Refugee support agencies in Oregon can breathe more easily after a federal judge in Maryland blocked President Trump’s executive order requiring state and local leaders to “opt into” resettlement, on Wednesday.
This was the first time in the almost 40-year history of U.S. refugee resettlement that local leaders were asked to submit letters of consent that they would accept newly arrived refugees.
“We’re just incredibly relieved that families won’t be separated for longer, those that are trying to reunite in those areas where a governor or a county might have opted out or not consented in,” Matthew Westerbeck, director of refugee resettlement services at Catholic Charities of Oregon said. “Those families that have been trying to reunite for years would have stayed separated … And this will make sure that tragedy doesn’t continue.”
Refugees are people who are forced to leave their country because of war, persecution or violence. They go through rigorous vetting before they can be resettled in the United States.
The Trump administration issued the resettlement executive order in September which would limit where refugees could be resettled, despite having agencies in the area to support the resettlement. The executive order was to take effect on June 1 but with the hold agencies are free to continue with business as usual.
Oregon has welcomed more than 75,000 refugees since 1975, and last spring’s legislative session demonstrated the state’s continued support.
“What's really phenomenal, unique, and what we're still celebrating is Oregon is now one of only three states in the country that provides state dollars to ensure that refugees and services are stable and robust,” Westerbeck said.
New York and Utah are the two other states that allocate state funds to refugee resettlement.
Lawmakers showed bipartisan support for refugee resettlement in the state with the passage of House Bill 2508. Representative Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, sponsored the bill that allocated state money to resettlement agencies feeling the brunt of the administration’s attempt to dismantle the program.
If the 82-3 vote in the Legislature wasn’t enough, last month Governor Kate Brown doubled down on the state’s support for refugee resettlement in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
“Let me be clear from the outset: Oregon is a sanctuary state. The State of Oregon consents and will continue to welcome the resettlement of refugees in our communities,” the governor wrote.
Prior to the federal court ruling, Westerbeck said, “What we’re seeing here in Oregon is counties seeing it as an opportunity to express that they want to continue being municipalities and areas and local governments that support refugee settlement.”
Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington and Marion counties had already submitted their letters, agreeing to continue receiving refugees. This week, Polk County had not decided its stance.
Since the 1980s, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties have been welcoming refugees. Around 2015, that expanded to the Salem-Keizer area with the participation of Marion and Polk counties.
While Executive Order 13888 is blocked under a temporary preliminary injunction, is only part of the actions the administration has taken to diminish the program since coming into office. Refugee support agencies point to the 2017 travel ban which prohibited people from mostly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. And they’re concerned about the Presidential Determination which sets the number of refugees that can be resettled in the U.S. For fiscal year 2020, that number hit an all-time low of 18,000.
“That's why over a hundred programs have closed since the first travel bans in 2017,” Westerbeck said of the agency field offices across the country that have shuttered. “That's why the lowered presidential determination of 18,000 will force more programs to close.”
There are nine national refugee resettlement agencies. Three organizations are active in Oregon Catholic Charities of Oregon, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
“I think that what's important to realize is that it is no small task to restart your life, to make the decision to flee war, persecution, to bring your kids with you to an unknown land,” Britt Conroy, public policy director for Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon said. “...We continue to need support from volunteers in all of our programs, whether it's welcoming people at the airport or whether it's partnering with them for tutoring or transportation that the need is far, far greater than even though the wonderful investment that the legislature made in the spring.”
The bill allocated $2 million dollars to help staff support newly arrived Oregonians during any 24-month period within the first five years of their arrival.
“The challenges that refugees face don't just happen in the first year or even the first two years of arrival, but they might have trouble with a landlord or might have a health difficulty in year three or four,” Conroy said. “And this bill gives them the opportunity to come back, partner with agencies that they trust, that resettled them and find solutions and get back on their feet.”
But for other states like Texas where Governor Greg Abbott opted out of welcoming refugees, the federal judge’s temporary ruling may be just that: temporary.
In his ruling U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte wrote a 31-page decision citing that the executive order is “unlawful.”
“Giving states and local governments the power to consent to the resettlement of refugees — which is to say veto power to determine whether refugees will be received in their midst — flies in the face of clear Congressional intent,” Judge Messitte wrote. “One is left to wonder exactly what the rationale is for doing away entirely with a process that has worked so successfully for so long.”
In a statement from the The White House in response to the ruling, they said, the decision, “robbed millions of American citizens of their voice and their say in a vital issue directly affecting their communities.” And they are reviewing options to protect communities.
As contractors with the U.S. State Department, refugee agencies can submit their funding requests as usual without letters of consent from local leaders. The fear is that if other states like Texas and local municipalities who have opted out of resettlement will cause more agencies across the country to lose funding and close. Supporters of refugee resettlement say such a trend would have a direct impact on how many people states like Oregon settle, and if families will be reunited.
There are more than 150,000 refugees abroad waiting for possible resettlement in the U.S.
While Oregonians can be proud of the state’s stance on resettlement, the national picture is pretty glum.
“I'm very concerned that a lot of my colleagues across the country in the programs and the communities that are welcoming refugees and the community support that the tradition and history of that is going to go away,” Westerbeck said.
“Refugee resettlement is a lifeline. And the more that we step back from this work and have the federal policies that indicate it's no longer a priority, more people overseas are going to die.”