Refugee workers turned out in force to greet a family from Afghanistan at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late Thursday — a family that might be the last to arrive as a now-challenged four-month resettlement freeze sets in.
President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order forced an unprecedented moment of reckoning, although Friday night's ruling by a federal judge halting the order has raised further uncertainties about what happens next.
Before Friday's ruling, leaders at the state's five resettlement agencies pledged to stay busy during any travel lull by beefing up services for recent arrivals and stepping up outreach to those who make their way to Minnesota from other states. They said they would lean more heavily on private fundraising to replace the federal funding tied to the suspension, if it stands.
"We are not stepping back," said Bob Oehrig, head of Arrive Ministries. "There's still plenty to do."
Resettlement advocates in Minnesota have decried Trump's order, which came as a record number of people worldwide are displaced. But others argued that a timeout could allow for important conversations about the cost of resettlement and the state's ability to integrate newcomers.
The Trump administration said the order, which faces several legal challenges in addition to Friday night's ruling, is needed to design a more stringent vetting process. When the program resumes, it will aim to resettle 50,000 this fiscal year, instead of the Obama administration's goal of 110,000.
Although Trump's order took effect immediately, the administration said this week it was allowing in about 800 refugees already slated to travel to the United States through Feb. 3. Refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Myanmar and elsewhere "squeaked just under the wire" to land in Minnesota this week, as Oehrig put it.
Ahmad Masoumi, who for seven years worked as a security supervisor for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, had braced for a lengthy delay. He had already waited for almost three years since he applied for a program granting visas to Iraqis and Afghanis who worked with the U.S. government or military — a program the Trump administration this week said it will continue.
"I was really worried we wouldn't make it," he said through an interpreter. "I am thrilled to be here."
Dozens of refugees who expected to arrive later in February won't make it just yet. At the St. Paul-based International Institute of Minnesota, which resettled Masoumi, his wife and five children, 32 scheduled trips were on hold as of Friday. Among them is St. Paul College student June Way's mom.
Way, a Karen refugee from Myanmar, also known as Burma, was resettled in the Twin Cities with her older siblings four years ago. She has since worried about the poor living conditions in the camp and the chance her mom could be sent back home as the Thai government pushes to close it.
"It was really sad because I already prepared for her every day," she said.
Eric Schwartz, dean at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School and a former Obama administration official in charge of refugee resettlement, called Trump's order "a classic example of fact-free policy vetting." Refugees already undergo extensive background checks. With more than 750,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 9/11, no one has been killed in an act of terror by one, he said.
He pointed to studies such as a recent Humphrey School report that highlights the importance of refugees and other immigrants for Minnesota's graying workforce. Many local resettlement agencies have long-standing relationships with employers in food processing, landscaping and other fields.
At the Center for the American Experiment, senior policy fellow Kim Crockett said that despite the order's troubled implementation, it would give the state a needed opening for difficult conversations about resettlement.
Beyond addressing concerns about the government's ability to screen refugees from war-torn countries, Crockett says, a timeout would allow breathing room for a debate about resettlement costs and local control: The federal government in tandem with the nation's resettlement agencies makes all the decisions about the number and nationalities of refugees arriving in the state. But the state and local communities chip in for early resettlement costs.
"Minnesotans have not been consulted," she said. "This is a federal program imposed on the state of Minnesota."
For the state's resettlement workers, the order has brought intense uncertainty. Some had expanded their teams in recent years as Minnesota refugee arrivals grew to more than 2,600 last year — though a shortage of affordable housing in the Twin Cities has hemmed in further expansion.
For most refugees, the agencies provide services during their first 90 days in the United States. The Minnesota Council of Churches, with 24 staffers on its resettlement team, has 115 open cases.
If the suspension stands, agency officials say they could offer additional help finding jobs or other services.
Officials also say they plan to reach out to refugees who head to Minnesota after resettlement in other states, often to join the state's sizable Somali community. These refugees might lose out on some federal resettlement services and can have a harder time easing in. Hundreds have started their lives in Minnesota at shelters like Mary's Place near downtown Minneapolis.
"All of our agencies can better serve these people when there are not as many new arrivals coming," said Ben Walen, who heads resettlement at the Minnesota Council of Churches.
Specialized services offered by many agencies will continue no matter what, from a large Somali adult literacy program at Arrive Ministries to programs at the International Institute that prepare refugees for jobs as housekeepers and medical assistants.
But funding would be a challenge for the agencies, which rely in part on the $950 per new arrival they receive from the federal government. Jane Graupman, the International Institute's executive director, says private donations will have to fill the gap; her organization faces the loss of $300,000 in federal dollars because of the suspension.
Resettlement officials say they've been heartened by an outpouring of support since Trump signed the order: More than 100 new volunteers signed up at the institute; some 200 showed up at an Arrive Ministries training this week.
Resettlement leaders are also preparing for a slow resumption of resettlement if new vetting procedures kick in. Many questions remain about what the program will look like in coming years.
At the airport, Syed Zaki, a family friend who fled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, embraced Masoumi. He said he had mixed feelings about Trump's order. "This is the president's job — to put safety first for his citizens," he said.
But he worried that the order singled out Muslims and could harm people in precarious positions: "We were the people who first faced the terrorists."