Syrian refugees encountered a mixture of welcome and rejection in various parts of the United States on Thursday as a political debate over whether the country should accept them continued to rage.
One family arrived safely in Michigan after three years in a Jordanian refugee settlement, another was welcomed in Connecticut after being rebuffed by Indiana, and plans for several more to go to Texas were reportedly put on hold.
On a day when the House of Representatives passed a measure requiring top U.S. officials to sign off on every refugee being admitted into the country, aid workers and Muslim activists in half a dozen states said they were working to reassure tense and fearful refugees that they were safe and not in jeopardy of removal.
“Many people I counsel were victims of torture or trauma in their homelands. This week, I am seeing a recurrence of symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks,” said Issam Smeir, a mental-health therapist in Chicago who works with World Relief, a nonprofit resettlement agency that helps Syrian and other Arabic-speaking refugees.
In Detroit, an official of the nonprofit Syrian American Rescue Network said one exhausted family of three arrived on a plane from Jordan late Wednesday and was resting at a hotel. Several other families due to arrive next week were anxiously calling relatives to find out whether they would still be welcome.
“There is a lot of chaos and confusion and disappointment,” said the official, Rasha Basha, who noted that the newly arrived family had waited 16 months for U.S. security and background checks. “All of our families are worried about their future in this country.”
In the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, more than two dozen governors have declared their opposition to allowing new Syrian refugees into their states. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said he would accept those who have already been approved for resettlement, but Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) ordered one arriving family to stay away Wednesday, and that family was diverted to Connecticut.
The warm reception that awaited them, including a statement from Gov. Dan Malloy (D) that called the welcoming of refugees “the humane thing to do,” highlighted the sharp contrasts emerging among U.S. elected officials and leaders — in part along partisan lines — as they seek a balance between compassion and security.
Mongi Dhaouadi, a Tunisian-born activist in New Haven who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that state leaders had rallied to the Syrian refugee cause in recent months and that a coalition of resettlement and volunteer groups has formed to find drivers, jobs and language assistance for Arabic-speaking refugees.
“Some people have even offered their houses,” he said.
In Texas, the clash is playing out within the state, with Gov. Greg Abbott (R) opposing all new refugee arrivals but with Mayor Mike Rawlings (D) of Dallas, which has a large Arab American populace, taking a welcoming stance. Nora Abdullah, who works with the city’s North Texas Refugee Alliance, said the group expects two families to arrive from Jordan or Turkey in December. Now, the organization has no idea whether that will happen.
“When we know a family is coming, we get furniture ready, we plan to meet them at the airport and provide other services,” Abdullah said. “Now we have been told to put everything on hold.”
Meanwhile, two Syrian families — two men, two women and four children — turned themselves in to immigration authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border post in Laredo, Tex., on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported Thursday, citing Department of Homeland Security officials. The men were taken to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Pearsall, and the women and children to one in Dilley.
Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million people have fled their country, including hundreds of thousands who have traveled to Europe on foot and by sea. But only about 2,000 have been admitted into the United States, after lengthy screenings and usually after waiting in other countries for several years.
Matthew Soerens, a Chicago-based World Relief official, said the total number of Syrians entering the United States is a trickle, not more than a few families per week. They constitute less than 5 percent of the foreign refugees who are resettled by his agency.
“What’s really scary is not for us, but for the refugees, especially those who have already been forcibly displaced from countries by war or violence and sometimes by governments,” Soerens said. “Now they see the news and hear talk of our government rounding people up. I can tell them that is against the law and it won’t happen here, but they have seen it happen before.”