Relatives of immigrants and refugees made their voices heard inside and outside of a rally in Louisville on Monday. | Photo by Melissa Chipman

Kentucky Refugee Ministries was scheduled to welcome a young Somali man arriving in Louisville from Kenya Monday night — one of 680 refugees approved to resettle in Kentucky through KRM this year.

Following the executive orders of President Donald Trump on Friday, however, KRM executive director John Koehlinger says that trip was cancelled — along with those of many more refugees throughout the world who underwent up to two years of vetting by government agencies and expected to find a new home in Kentucky or other states.

Trump’s executive order suspended the refugee resettlement program for 120 days — though indefinitely halting the resettlement of those fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Syria — and reduced the number of refugees allowed in the United States this year from 110,000 to 50,000. While Trump had campaigned on a pledge to ban any Muslim from even visiting America, the order scaled that back by prohibiting citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Libya and Yemen — from traveling into the country for 90 days. Several federal judges issued emergency rulings prohibiting the deportation and lack of access to attorneys of those held at airports over the weekend with valid visas and green cards.

The order has been met by waves of protests nationwide, including thousands attending a rally in Louisville on Monday. After acting attorney general Sally Yates told Justice Department lawyers not to defend the president’s order because she was not convinced it was legal, Trump fired and replaced her Monday evening, issuing a statement accusing Yates of betrayal and calling her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

A larger-then-expected crowd gathered at the Louisville rally outside the Muhammad Ali Center. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

According to the U.S. Department of State, Kentucky resettled nearly 2,500 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the sixth-most per capita among states. Kentucky rose to third in that figure in the final three months of 2016, with 874 refugees resettling in Kentucky — 47 percent of whom came from either Somalia, Syria, Iraq or Sudan.

Koehlinger tells IL the four-month suspension of the refugee program will not only prevent “a couple hundred” refugees from being resettled by KRM this year, but prevent many former refugees living in Kentucky from being able to reunite with their family members who wish to join them or visit. Taking particular note of the indefinite ban on refugees from war-torn Syria — and leaving the humanitarian response to other countries like Germany and Canada — he criticized what he called the Trump administration’s “moral callousness and utter hostility to any kind of global humanitarian action, under their new banner of ‘America First.'”

“We’ve settled over 200 Syrians… we’re one of the largest sites for Syrian resettlement in the country,” says Koehlinger. “That’s going to be devastating. Close to three-quarters of Syrians we’ve already resettled are women and children, a lot of larger families. That’s a real act of moral callousness to just shut the door on Syrian resettlements.”

Koehlinger says KRM’s very first family of Syrian refugees from early 2015 were lucky enough to welcome additional family members arriving at Dulles International Airport in D.C. on Wednesday afternoon, noting that Trump at that very time “was signing some executive orders and we were just hoping that wasn’t one of them.” However, “there are a lot of family reunification cases that will be blocked now.”

Trump says his order is needed to prevent terrorists from entering America, initiating a review to ensure government agencies properly vet those entering the country. Trump specifically states in the order that “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States,” which will be suspended until “I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the (U.S. Refugee Admissions Program) to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.”

Koehlinger counters by noting that refugees “by a large margin are screened more comprehensively and thoroughly than any other people entering the United States” by the FBI and the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense — a process that takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months. He adds that critics of the programs have “this impossible threshold of perfect 100 percent security,” made all the more difficult by those fleeing a regime like that of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

“Opponents to Syrian resettlement say we can’t adequately screen Syrians because we don’t have access to databases and information and background checks from the Syrian government,” says Koehlinger, “which cruelly would make the resettlement of Syrian refugees dependent on the brutal government that bombed and gassed and tortured them and created the refugee crisis in the first place.”

While he is heartened by the “local, national and international condemnation” of Trump’s orders, Koehlinger says he is not optimistic that the president will be swayed by such protests and criticism to back away from his policy.

“This was not a surprise to me, if you followed Trump’s statements on the campaign trail at his rallies, demonizing Syrian refugees,” says Koehlinger, adding that Trump’s inner circle of chief strategist Steve Bannon, attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, national security advisor Michael Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence “are staunchly and vehemently opposed to the U.S. refugee program.

Koehlinger expects congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to seek large budget cuts for resettlement agencies providing services to refugees, noting that Trump’s order also called for the State Department to issue a report on the total costs of the refugee program at the federal and state level. While there are front-end costs to serving refugees, he says the long-term benefits are often ignored.

“We have so many refugees I’ve personally known who started out in entry level jobs who are now homeowners and proud citizens,” says Koehlinger. “We have refugee kids doing well in school and going on to community and four-year colleges. In 2016, we placed 900 of our clients in jobs in Louisville alone, with the average wage at $11 an hour, over 200 employers relying on refugee workers… the critics aren’t looking at that side of the ledger.”

KRM’s website currently lists ways that people can help refugees and their mission, noting that support has started pouring in from the community since Friday.

“We noticed a surge just over the weekend in donations to KRM,” says Koehlinger. “People are really agitated and offended by this. It just trashes so many bedrock principles of our country regarding equal treatment and religious tolerance and welcoming immigrants. There’s been a lot of community support, which we’re heartened by… We’ve been around for 26 years, and we just hope that we don’t have to scale back our program, which really offers comprehensive services for new arrivals and refugees.”

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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