New Anxiety for Harrisonburg's Refugees and Immigrants

Feb 21, 2017

A recent Brookings Institution report named Harrisonburg as one of the top ten communities in the United States in terms of the proportion of immigrants from the seven countries on President Trump’s temporary travel ban.  WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz spoke with several people in Harrisonburg whose lives and work are being affected by the recent turmoil in immigration and refugee policy.

Two days after President Trump was sworn into office, Antoine and Antoinette and two of their five children arrived in the United States.

ANTOINE: Welcome...

CLYMER KURTZ: Welcome to you.

Since 2004 this Congolese family lived as refugees in Burundi, a small country surrounded by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fleeing war. Now they live in a Harrisonburg apartment east of Interstate 81. They asked us not to use their last names, because they still have family in danger in Burundi. Although they personally feel much safer now, they’re still very, very worried.

ANTOINE: We left there our children. They don't have any possibilities to leave, and we stopped to pay the rent of the house, so they don't have anywhere to live.

Their two boys who came with them to the United States are already settling into public high school. But it wasn’t until last week, after Trump’s travel ban had caused his flight to be canceled, and then the ban was put on hold, and then his flight was rescheduled, that one of Antoine and Antoinette’s three remaining, adult children arrived. His name is Riga, speaking here with his father interpreting.

RIGA (translated): We'll be happy if we are together with our family is complete.

About his siblings still in Burundi, Riga said this:

RIGA (translated): Feeling bad because they are living in bad situation. It is very difficult for them to eat. Very difficult for them to sleep. And if they need something to eat, they must sell clothes. We are not too happy because we are not complete.

The family came to Harrisonburg through the Refugee Resettlement Program and the local Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Office. Rebecca Sprague, the agency’s Community Program Coordinator, says that the number of refugees allowed into the United States this fiscal year has been cut from President Obama’s target of 110,000 to 50,000 under Trump’s new policy. Since 30,000 people have already arrived, she says, that leaves slots for only 20,000 more -- but there are already 67,000 people who are approved for flying here, which means 47,000 of those simply won’t get to come. And that’s with or without any executive travel ban.

All of this is affecting the Harrisonburg agency’s work, and possibly future funding.

REBECCA SPRAGUE: Even once the travel starts again, the number that we're expected to resettle this year has dropped from 245 to 130. And since we're already at the 115 mark, or something, it's only a few more families for the rest of the year, if the number of refugees allowed into the country isn't increased.

Anxiety is increasing among the non-refugee immigrant population, too, says Alicia Horst, Executive Director of NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg.

ALICIA HORST: It feels like we're in uncharted territory when it comes to enforcement. It creates a lot of anxiety, even for persons that one would say, “Oh, you have nothing to worry about.” A lawful, permanent resident is somebody that you normally would say can travel, and not need to question whether or not they have access to their family in the United States, but it feels like a whole new world in some ways, of unknowns.

National news reporting has suggested a potential increase in enforcement action against immigration violations. Horst has known of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity here in the Valley over the years, but mainly only when people have been involved in criminal situations. The potential for workplace raids or broader sweeps is troubling, she says.

HORST: How those choices are made about who to ask for documentation are questions I would have. Are you asking any random person on the street, or are you asking persons that are connected to a particular building? And why is that? 

Some in the community are pushing for Harrisonburg to become a sanctuary city; an online petition to the City Council had about 1,500 signatures Monday. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is among those calling for Governor McAuliffe “not to accept responsibility on behalf of the Commonwealth for enforcing the federal government’s immigration laws.”

Recent arrival and refugee Antoine, who simply doesn’t know when his other two adult children will be able to join him here, has felt well received, and has high hopes for his family’s new life here.

ANTOINE: People in America like the refugees. Our dreams is to work and to make America develop.

Alicia Horst finds that sentiment refreshing.

HORST: Especially given a lot of what people have faced before they move here, to be able to say, “I want to invest who I am in this place,” and the hope of that, it's beautiful. I mean, I want my neighbors to be people exactly like that.