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Michigan refugee advocates wait to see if Trump follows through on rhetoric

Refugee children play in Warren, MI in 2015.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Refugee children play in Warren, MI in 2015.

What will happen to U.S. policy toward Syrian refugees when Donald Trump takes over as president?

That’s what Michigan’s refugee community, and the agencies that help to resettle them, are waiting to find out.

Trump repeatedly depicted Syrian refugees as terrorist threats on the campaign trail, and threatened to “stop Syrian refugees” from entering the country more than once.

Now the plan for his first 100 days in office promises suspending immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur. "All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered [sic] extreme vetting.”

Nadia Tonova, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, said refugee applicants already face up to two years of screening, so it’s not clear what “extreme vetting” would look like.

“It’s a very, very rigorous process already. And so I’m not sure how you would escalate to be considered extreme vetting,” Tonova said.

President Obama had directed the State Department to prepare for 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year. Not all of those refugees would be from Syria, but it was expected that a large number would be.

Tonova said refugee resettlement and social services agencies are prepared for that increase, if it’s not reversed.

“Our member organizations are providing a huge infrastructure and support network to these refugees that are coming in,” she said. “We’re ready and willing to be able to support them.”

Michigan has long been a top destination for refugees from the Middle East, including the most recent wave of Syrians.

In the 2016 fiscal year (starting in September 2015), 1,374 Syrian refugees were resettled in Michigan, as well as 1,118 Iraqis. (Tonova notes that doesn’t account for secondary resettlement, when refugees originally placed elsewhere relocate to Michigan; this is believed to happen fairly often with refugees from the Middle East, but there are no hard numbers.)

Tonova said it’s not yet clear if Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric, and now his impending presidency, are deterring Syrian refugees from even trying to come to the U.S. “Certainly when you have a hostile environment, I’m sure that’s something people are considering,” she said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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