The fates of thousands of immigrants and refugees hinge on the presidential election, as President Donald Trump looks to continue his rollback of programs that admit or legally protect foreigners in America.
Joe Biden, in contrast, pledges to dramatically increase refugee resettlement and unwind Trump's efforts to end policies for immigrants to live and work lawfully in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and to end a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Democratic nominee says he would end Trump's policies "to drastically restrict access to asylum in the U.S." and overturn the president's travel ban affecting Somalia and other Muslim-majority countries.
Khalid Omar lamented that his brother cannot immigrate from Kenya because he has a Somali passport.
"These are the kinds of issues that are very important to our community this year," said Omar, a senior organizer with Muslim Coalition of Faith in Minnesota. "We can change the outcomes if we all go out and claim our voices."
He spoke moments after he helped hang a sign that said, "We Make Minnesota Better off Together" by the Cedar Cultural Center, where faith and community leaders held an event this month to encourage voting.
In his appeals to Minnesotans, Trump has focused most prominently on refugees. The president said during a September rally in Bemidji that Biden planned "to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet. … Your state will be overrun and destroyed."
Weeks later, Trump announced that he was limiting refugee arrivals over the next year to 15,000, the fewest in the program's 40-year history. He has steadily dropped the number since taking office, following a yearly average of 95,000 established by presidents of both parties.
Trump's campaign also began running an ad in Minnesota and elsewhere bashing Biden's plans amid a pandemic for "increasing refugees by 700% from the most unstable, vulnerable, dangerous parts of the world." Biden has pledged to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 — 15,000 more than President Barack Obama had authorized before leaving office.
The president's approach has some support in Minnesota, where Beltrami County commissioners voted in January against allowing refugee resettlement. And in recent years, amid tensions between whites and Somali newcomers in St. Cloud, several political candidates called for a pause on refugee resettlement.
"My position consistently has been that the refugee resettlement program is broken and until it is fixed, we should not be bringing hundreds of thousands of refugees which the country is not prepared to assimilate," said John Palmer, who lost his bid for the St. Cloud City Council in 2018 with 43% of the vote.
Trump's election, he said, "gave us a breathing space." For nearly 20 years, he added, "no one of any political persuasion is taking time to put that program in order so that the refugees that need to be resettled in the U.S. will come to a setting in which we can do what we need to for them."
Advocates say the entire refugee program depends on the election.
"The contrast couldn't be starker and the stakes couldn't be higher," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency. "Four more years of a Trump administration would presumably be the death knell for the refugee program."
With Biden's plan to raise the ceiling, Vignarajah said, "we're talking about hundreds of thousands of lives the U.S. could be saving."
If Biden prevails in the election, resettlement agencies would need time to restore their capacities after several years of cutbacks and closures under Trump.
The bulk of the Somali diaspora settled in Minnesota in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Trump has repeatedly singled out people from Somalia in his criticism of refugees. During Trump's first three years in office, Minnesota took in just 541 Somali refugees. That compares to 3,499 during the previous three years under Obama. The state's largest refugee groups now are Congolese and Karen migrants from Myanmar.
"Every election year, there is a playbook used by some politicians," said Imam Hassan Jama, executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, during a recent gathering of faith leaders in Cedar-Riverside. "The playbook is to use Muslims, Somalis refugees and immigrants, as scapegoats in order to divide people by what they look like or where they came from instead of offering solutions that could help all of our families."
Daisy Kabaka, a member of the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committee (MIRAC), pointed out that the Trump administration has made it harder for new arrivals to win asylum cases and wants to charge them fees for applying, though many claiming persecution in their homelands arrived here with nothing. Kabaka noted that the administration also requires participants in the DACA program, which grants temporary protections for unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children, to renew their status for a year instead of two, while it reviews a Supreme Court ruling that found flaws in how the administration tried to end the program.
Kabaka questions whether immigrants will fare better under Biden, however. Kabaka said Obama enacted DACA in 2012 only after immigrants took initiative, including through hunger strikes, and that he was considered the "deporter in chief" because he sent more people back to their homelands than either the Trump or George W. Bush administrations.
"Just because there's a Democratic president in office, that doesn't necessarily make immigrants feel any better," Kabaka said.
After the Supreme Court ruling in June, Trump said he would try again to end DACA, and the administration has stopped accepting new applications. Biden said he'll make the program permanent on "day one" if elected.
Carolina Ortiz is a DACA recipient working to get out the vote this year, though she cannot vote herself. She's communications director of COPAL (Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action), a Latino grassroots organization.
"I feel like I'm sleeping and breathing and everything, 'Vote, vote, vote,' but I feel like it is because I can't vote that I need to encourage people who can vote to be my voice and the voice of people like myself that have DACA," said Ortiz, a Mexican immigrant.
After months of phone banking in the Latino community, she said the organization has secured over 15,000 pledges to vote.
Those with Temporary Protected Status face uncertainty after the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently sided with the Trump administration decision to rescind rules allowing citizens of some countries facing natural disasters or armed conflict to live and work here legally. If that holds, TPS holders from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan would lose their legal status next year. TPS designations have been renewed under Republican and Democratic administrations alike for many years, but the Trump administration argues that the program was always temporary.
The Biden campaign has said he will protect TPS holders and offer them a path to citizenship through immigration reform measures.