Efforts by local groups to welcome refugees on hold due to travel ban

New London — The effort to welcome and settle refugee families into southeastern Connecticut is on hold.

President Donald Trump’s new executive order issued on Monday not only temporarily bans immigration from six Muslim-majority countries, it enacts a temporary blanket ban on all refugees.

Chris George, the executive director of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, or IRIS, said the travel ban will stymie work by his organization and the host of volunteer groups helping to settle refugee families.

He said the U.S. irrationally is turning its back on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

“We call it a refugee ban and not a travel ban because the part of the executive order that has the greatest impact on the largest number of people is the part that reduces the number of refugees admitted into this country from 110,000 to 50,000,” George said. “That is turning our back on and breaking our promise for 60,000 refugees that were supposed to come to our country this year. That is devastating for these families.”

The order, which starts March 16, blocks citizens of Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from obtaining visas for at least 90 days. Most refugees, with a few exceptions, will be barred from entering the U.S. for 120 days while the government examines the vetting process as a security measure.

IRIS, with the help of co-sponsors in New London and across the state, welcomed 240 refugees in 2015 and 530 in 2016, as part of the state’s response to the worldwide refugee crisis and a push to help welcome more Syrians being displaced by war in their country. Three families, including two from Syria, now are living in New London.

Ron Ward, the co-leader of Start Fresh, the volunteer organization that raised funds and gathered donations to bring in the refugee families through IRIS, said preparation work for other families will continue in New London. But just when a new family might come in largely is unknown in light of the executive order.

“We are continuing to do our work,” Ward said. “We have three families we’re still working with, helping them to navigate being here in the U.S. One that just arrived. We don’t know when or if a new family might come.”

Ward said from what he knows from the families, the two- to three-year vetting process is already one of the most stringent in the world. And while he’s not against an examination of the vetting process for weaknesses, his concern is that at the end of the 120 days, the government could decide not to continue at all.

“We don’t know what the conclusion will be at the end of the process," Ward said.

With Iraq being taken off of the banned list in Trump’s latest directive, Ward said it is possible that New London could be the new home for an Iraqi family.

“They have told us they are ready and willing to take on more families,” George said of the local co-sponsors. “We’re just not getting them.”

George said while the goal of IRIS was to bring in more than 500 families again this year, the more realistic number is now closer to 250.

One of his concerns is for the refugees who already have passed the security and medical screening process and are likely to see those clearances expire during the 120-day window. They will be forced to do it over again, he said.

Additionally, George said, organizations like his are likely to be weakened and may even be forced to lay off workers.

“It’s a shame because refugee resettlement is our nation’s most efficient private-public partnership," he said. "We, 350 agencies, resettled 85,000 refugees across the country last year. And it was with a combination of taxpayer money and private support.”

He estimates that for every federal dollar spent, about $4 of private money, volunteer time or material donations is leveraged.

“It is a very efficient program,” George said. “The most shameful aspect of all this is at a time when the world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, our nation, which has traditionally taken the lead, is cutting the number of refugees to the lowest number under any president.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., led a group of eight senators on Friday calling on Trump to rescind the revised travel ban.

In a letter to the president, the senators said the executive order "runs contrary to American values and fails to protect Iraqi men and women who put themselves and their families in danger on behalf of the United States."

"By strictly limiting the number of refugees the U.S. admits, Trump’s (executive order) does not provide enough space for Iraqis who have helped the U.S. to seek the asylum they were promised," the letter reads. "Breaking such promises threatens future military and diplomatic efforts overseas."

g.smith@theday.com

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