WORCESTER, MA — When are my people going to join me? If I travel outside the country, will I be allowed back? When will I see my children? Can I go outside safely?
Workers at Catholic Charities Immigration Services and Refugee Resettlement programs reported receiving many questions in the wake of executive orders halting refugee resettlement and immigration from certain countries.
“I tell them we are hopeful — hopeful that, at some point, it will be lifted and that their family can join them,” said Kaska Yawo, who works in the Immigration Services program at Catholic Charities Worcester County, in a recent interview. Yawo estimates he receives 30 inquiries per day about the executive orders. “And we continue to give them hope, and I am very certain that this will not stay like this forever.”
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 27 that halted refugee resettlements for 120 days, except for refugees from Syria, who were banned indefinitely, and barred people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days.
The order also cut the number of refugees to be accepted in the country this year from 110,000 to 50,000. Trump said the directive was necessary to protect the United States from attacks by Islamist militants.
The order prompted protests and court challenges. It also put many green card and visa holders in legal limbo if they were traveling into the United States from the seven countries listed. The ban has not been in effect since February 3, when a federal judge in Seattle imposed a temporary restraining order.
Trump issued a revised executive order March 6, to take effect March 16, that specified that those who already had a green card or visa would not be affected by the travel ban, including refugees already on their way to the United States.
In fact, just this week, five refugees from Nepal arrived in Worcester, according to Catholic Charities Executive Director Timothy McMahon.
The new executive order also eliminates Iraq from the list of countries on the travel ban. However, it continues the 120-day halt on new refugees and the 50,000-refugee limit. That order is also being challenged in court, including by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Healey’s office announced this week.
McMahon and Yawo said the new executive order still is creating uncertainty, especially among families divided by the resettlement process.
“Nothing is different — because like I said, most people have left the rest of their family in refugee camps and in other countries,” Yawo said Friday. “People are just afraid, and are not getting real answers … there’s no specific answers and it makes them wonder if everything is going to be OK and what is going to happen to them.”
The uncertainty and concern are something Yawo understands well as a former refugee from Liberia. He is also the executive director and co-founder of the African Community Education program. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009, but still has family scattered in refugee camps in Africa.
“This is a very big blow, splitting families for the next 120 or 90 days, and we will not want to continue to see this,” Yawo said.
Sister Theresa Khen Doan, refugee resettlement program administrator, agreed.
“They want to be here as soon as they can,” Khen Doan said in a separate interview last month. “But now (the question is) how long they can wait.”
McMahon of Catholic Charities said the uncertainty also extended to the organization itself, which employs many staff members who are refugees. He said morale is good, but it is a challenge to keep it high.
“The organization is frustrated,” McMahon said. “We recognize that folks who are in horrible situations are being left behind while all this is going on. We’re as concerned for the folks who were left behind as the folks who are here who are worried about them.”
There are also concerns about how to maintain future staffing with a reduced workload because of the new refugee limit and the temporary halt. The ban might prolong the timeline of those already participating in the resettlement process because they could miss important deadlines — for instance, deadlines to get a medical evaluation, Yawo said.
“It’s got a lagging effect,” McMahon said of the halt. “So then our concern, frankly, becomes what do we do with the staff?”
Not that there isn’t work to be done with refugees who are currently here and need services.
Catholic Charities routinely helps refugee clients find housing, and brings them to Social Security and to apply for public benefits such as health insurance. The organization will accompany refugees to doctor appointments and to register children for school, and refer refugees to employment services, among other assistance.
Yawo said that clients continue coming for years after their resettlement as they often progress through taking English classes, applying for a green card, and preparing for citizenship.
McMahon said the organization was committed to keeping all staff, and suggested reassigning workers to more in-depth assignments with the existing refugee and immigrant communities. He said the refugee resettlement work generates little revenue and operates at a deficit, so the organization shouldn’t be too financially affected by any halt.
Nevertheless, Catholic Charities USA is raising money for programs whose revenue is hurt by the executive orders, and the Worcester County branch has applied for a portion of the funds, McMahon said.
But all those interviewed reported that the executive orders — even while halted — were having a demonstrable effect on the refugee and immigrant communities.
Catholic Charities said workers asked seven resettled families with other family members awaiting resettlement to be interviewed for this article but all declined multiple queries.
“Frankly, I think this climate makes them even more fearful,” McMahon said.