Opposition To Refugee Arrivals Keeps Getting Louder

Nov 22, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 4:55 am

A few days after Donald Trump was elected President, more than a hundred people packed into a church sanctuary in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to hear a presentation about refugee resettlement in their town.

It didn't go well.

This was after Trump had campaigned on refusing Syrian refugees, citing security concerns. In the church that night, staffers from the non-profit organization Church World Service laid out their plan to open a refugee resettlement office in Poughkeepsie, and bring in about 80 refugees, mostly from the Congo, Iraq and Syria.

The audience had questions. A lot of them. They wanted to know, would they be safe? And could Poughkeepsie afford to care for these new residents?

"As a resident of this town, of this city, I can look out my window any time and find someone in need," said Poughkeepsie resident Steven Planck, to vigorous applause.

The head of Church World Service's refugee program, Erol Kekic, spent more than an hour trying to respond to the questions.

"We had to do a lot of truth-telling, and dispel some myths," says Kekic. "From 'the value of my property will go down because refugees will be resettling next to me,' to 'are we bringing terrorists?' to 'why are we bringing people who don't all look like us?'"

It's getting harder for refugees to find a welcoming home in the U.S. The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country. In cities and town across the nation, citizens are protesting refugees being resettled in their neighborhoods.

In Poughkeepsie, the debate got ugly. On social media, people called opponents of the refugee plan racists and Islamophobes. The staff of Church World Service received death threats.

"What I didn't anticipate was how the issue would be politicized by the election climate," says Vassar College student Patrick DeYoung, who helped launch the effort to bring refugees to Poughkeepsie. He says the intensity of the debate surprised him.

"It went from being a kind of run of the mill, like, maybe not here, to, these Muslims are going to take over our neighborhood and ruin Poughkeepsie," DeYoung says.

Until recently, refugee resettlement in the U.S. had wide bipartisan support. The U.S. State Department, along with nine large non-profit groups, decides where to resettle refugees fleeing persecution, war and violence. They look for communities where there are volunteers to help.

Patrick DeYoung is one of those volunteers. He's now a college senior, but before he came to Vassar, Sgt. DeYoung served five years in the Army. He did two tours in Afghanistan, where he saw firsthand civilians being forced from their homes.

"I felt that there was an obligation to, you know, welcome the stranger and to to help people, a chance for the country to show its best self," DeYoung says. "So, why not here? Why not in Poughkeepsie?"

Others in town felt that was the wrong question to ask.

"We all wondered, why? Why Poughkeepsie?" says David Cole, 37, a lifelong resident of the town who helped mobilize opposition to Church World Service. Cole insists he has nothing against Muslims or other refugees. But he says Poughkeepsie isn't a wealthy town; unemployment there is higher than the statewide average.

"I looked at people that I knew," Cole says. "And I said, OK, well, why aren't these people getting help? Why are we trying to help, you know, people from war-torn countries in an area where there's people looking for jobs? Like, they're scavenging for jobs around here. I don't get it."

Church World Service did open an office in Poughkeepsie. But it only resettled one family of five.

The same story is playing out across America. Critics of the refugee program say they're mobilizing in at least a dozen places where people want more control over who's coming to live in their communities.

State and local officials are supposed to be consulted before refugees come to their areas, says Susan Tully, national field director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower levels of immigration. But in practice, Tully says, that's not happening enough.

"The volunteer organizations who resettle these people seem to be almost the single driving force, and deciding voice, of where they go," Tully says. "People are saying, oh, wait a minute, you're not the only one that's got a dog in this fight."

Now, the state of Tennessee is suing the federal government to block refugee resettlement there. The mayor of Rutland, Vt. was voted out of office earlier this year after trying to bring in refugees to give the town's small workforce a boost. And in St. Cloud, Minnesota, some residents are calling for a moratorium on resettlement as the refugee community grows into the thousands. (In response, the City Council passed a resolution "in support of a just and welcoming city".)

Still, Erol Kekic at Church World Service says most people support refugees, even in those places.

"Yes, there are loud voices in every community," Kekic says. "But they're usually not the majority, and they're usually just a very loud minority."

Kekic himself was a refugee from Bosnia more than 20 years ago. He says refugees do use public benefits, such as welfare and health care. But over time, refugees also start business and become productive members of society.

"At the end of the day, all of these differences — they may look different, speak a different language — kind of blend in. And you just get a new neighbor," Kekic says.

But that's not what happened in Poughkeepsie.

More than a year after that contentious meeting in the church sanctuary, the town's residents are still bitterly divided. Church World Service has closed its local office. The resettlement agency says there aren't enough new refugees arriving in the U.S. to justify an office there since President Trump slashed the number that are allowed in.

And that one refugee family that came to Poughkeepsie? They're gone too. They moved away to find a community with other Congolese immigrants. A more welcoming community.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's getting harder for refugees to find a welcoming home in the U.S. The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees it's allowing in. And people in cities and towns across the country are protesting against refugees being resettled in their neighborhoods. NPR's Joel Rose brings us the story of what that backlash meant for one community in New York's Hudson Valley.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This story starts a year ago. It was just a few days after the bruising presidential election. The winner, Donald Trump, had campaigned on refusing Syrian refugees, citing security concerns. And more than a hundred people had packed into a church in downtown Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you very much for hosting us.

ROSE: Staffers from the nonprofit Church World Service laid out their plan to open a refugee resettlement office in this river town and bring in about 80 people mostly from the Congo, Iraq and Syria. Then local residents got up to ask questions - a lot of questions. They wanted to know, would they be safe, and could Poughkeepsie afford to care for these new residents?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN PLANCK: As a resident of this town, of this city, I can look out my window anytime and find someone in need.

ROSE: The head of Church World Services' refugee program, Erol Kekic, spent more than an hour trying to answer those questions.

EROL KEKIC: We had to do a lot of truth telling and dispel some myths from, you know, the value of my property will go down because refugees will be resettling next to me, to, you know, are we bringing terrorists, to, you know, why are we bringing people who don't all look like us?

ROSE: But the debate continued and got ugly. On social media, people called the opponents of the refugee plan racists and Islamophobes. The staff of Church World Service received death threats.

PATRICK DEYOUNG: What I didn't anticipate was how the issue would be politicized by the election climate.

ROSE: Patrick DeYoung is a senior at Vassar College. He helped launch the effort to bring refugees to Poughkeepsie. He says the intensity of the debate surprised him.

DEYOUNG: It went from being a kind of run-of-the-mill, like, maybe not here to, these Muslims are going to take over our neighborhood and ruin Poughkeepsie.

ROSE: Until recently, refugee resettlement in the U.S. had wide bipartisan support. The State Department along with nine large nonprofit groups decides where to resettle refugees fleeing persecution, war and violence, and they look for communities where there are volunteers to help, volunteers like Patrick DeYoung. Before he came to Vassar, Sergeant DeYoung served five years in the Army, including two tours in Afghanistan, where he saw firsthand civilians being forced from their homes.

DEYOUNG: I felt that there was an obligation to, you know, welcome the stranger and to help people and a chance for the country to show its best self. So why not here? Why not in Poughkeepsie?

ROSE: Others in town felt that was the wrong question to ask.

DAVID COLE: We all wondered, why? Why Poughkeepsie?

ROSE: This is David Cole. He helped mobilize opposition to Church World Service. He's lived here all his life, 37 years. Cole insists he has nothing against Muslims or other refugees. But he says Poughkeepsie isn't a wealthy town, and unemployment is higher than the statewide average.

COLE: I looked at people that I knew. And I said, OK, well, why aren't these people getting help? Why are we trying to help, you know, people from war-torn countries in an area where there's people looking for jobs? Like, they're scavenging for jobs around here. I don't get it.

ROSE: Church World Service did open an office in Poughkeepsie. But it only resettled 1 family of 5. The same story is playing out in pockets across America. Critics of the refugee program say they're mobilizing in at least a dozen places where people want more control over who's coming to live in their communities.

Susan Tully is national field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower levels of immigration. She points out that state and local officials are supposed to be consulted before refugees come to their areas. But in practice, Tully says that's not happening enough.

SUSAN TULLY: The volunteer organizations who resettle these people seem to be the - almost the single driving force and deciding voice of where they go. And people are saying, oh, wait a minute; you're not the only one that's got a dog in this fight.

ROSE: In Tennessee, state lawmakers are suing the federal government to block refugee resettlement there. In Rutland, Vt., the mayor was voted out of office earlier this year after trying to bring in refugees to give the town's small workforce a boost. And in St. Cloud, Minn., some residents are calling for a moratorium on resettlement as the refugee community grows into the thousands. Still, Erol Kekic at Church World Service says most people support refugees even in those places.

KEKIC: Yes, there are loud voices in every community. But they're usually not the majority. And they're usually just a very loud minority.

ROSE: Kekic himself was a refugee from Bosnia more than 20 years ago. He says refugees do need public benefits such as welfare and health care but that over time, refugees also start businesses and become productive members of society.

KEKIC: At the end of the day, all of these differences - you know, they may look different, speak a different language - kind of blend in, and you just get a new neighbor.

ROSE: But that's not what happened in Poughkeepsie. A year later, residents are still bitterly divided. And Church World Service has closed its office. The resettlement agency says there aren't enough new refugees arriving in the U.S. to justify an office there since President Trump slashed the number that are allowed in. And that one refugee family that came to Poughkeepsie - they're gone, too. They moved away to find a community of Congolese immigrants, a more welcoming community. Joel Rose, NPR News, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.