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These refugees escaped Congo, but Trump’s policies may strand loved ones

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs
The New York Times, Oct. 30, 2019

Funugo Nsanzinfura and a friend’s daughter during a video call with his wife and daughter. The Trump refugee rules are stacked against the Congolese in ways large and small. Credit…Louise Johns for The New York Times

MISSOULA, Mont. — On his first day in this small college town cradled between the Flathead and Lolo national forests, Funugo Nsanzinfura made sure to submit the paperwork necessary for his daughter, Faith, and her mother, Ayingeneye, to join him in the growing community of Congolese refugees here.

Since that day in 2018, he has cooked for students, prepared livestock at a market and bathed the disabled residents of a group home, stashing away what he could to reunite his family in Missoula, 8,400 miles and worlds away from the Ugandan refugee camp where he grew up. But the Trump administration’s move to slash the number of refugees admitted into the United States in the next 11 months by nearly a half has already canceled several planned refugee flights — including three this week — stranding more than 400 people cleared for transport and leaving Mr. Nsanzinfura in despair.

He is contemplating what was once unthinkable, a return to East Africa and the camp he finally escaped. “It’s my family which I need to take care of,” said Mr. Nsanzinfura, who is known as Joseph. “It made me lose hope that I will see them again here.”

As the White House prepares to finalize the fiscal year’s refugee cap at 18,000, the lowest number since the program was created four decades ago, many of the nearly 200 Congolese who settled in Missoula have answered desperate calls from relatives who have waited years in camps in Uganda or Tanzania for refuge in the United States. One woman has been pleading with community leaders to help her son, who recently emerged from a coma and is now alone in a camp. A local preacher prepared his three children to go to the airport last month to welcome their uncle, only to find out the morning of the arrival that the flight had been canceled.

In fact, the flights canceled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were the third batch to be scrubbed as refugee officials await final word on this year’s refugee cap, said a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. The next possible departures would be Nov. 5, if President Trump signs off on the annual cap before then.

Mr. Trump has made restricting refugee admissions part of his broader goal to limit immigration. This fiscal year’s 18,000 is down from the 30,000 let in between October 2018 and September 2019, and that was a fraction of the 110,000 that President Barack Obama offered refuge in the 2017 fiscal year.

The shriveling of the program comes as the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in the world totaled 70 million last year, the highest recorded since World War II. Mr. Trump is expected to finalize his refugee cap in the coming days, which will pair with a potentially divisive executive order that gives local activists more power to reject refugees chosen for resettlement in their communities. Together, the cap and the order will change the complexion of the nation’s refugee program.

“It’s a political ploy, putting our program at risk and causing fear among those who ought to be welcomed to a better life in Montana,” said the state’s governor, Steve Bullock, a Democratic presidential candidate.

Administration officials have argued that the cuts are necessary to focus federal resources on a surge of migrant families that have illegally crossed the southern border this year, even though such crossings have declined by more than 60 percent since May. Thousands of refugees abroad have already cleared the required security screenings and are simply waiting for their ticket to the United States.

Many of them hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As of July, more than 4,300 refugees from Congo had passed the extensive security screenings required by the United States and were cleared to move to America, more than any other country, according to State Department data obtained by The New York Times. More than 26,600 Congolese people completed the initial screening in the refugee process.

But the Trump refugee rules are stacked against the Congolese in ways large and small. The administration is moving away from dispersing openings based on geography. Instead of reserving slots for Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the administration will carve out 4,000 refugee slots for Iraqis who worked with the United States military, 1,500 for people from Central America and 5,000 for people persecuted for their religion. The final 7,500 slots are for those who are seeking family unification and have been cleared for resettlement.

Those carve-outs do not leave much room for refugees whose families fled ethnic cleansing and rape in Congo in the 1990s and have spent most of their lives in congested East African displaced persons camps.

“They have uprooted and sold everything, and they were anticipating a new life in the United States,” said Nazanin Ash, the vice president for global policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “And now the rug will get pulled out from under them with no recourse in sight.”

Beyond the refugees themselves, the new rules have raised anxieties in host communities like Missoula. The same day the administration announced its refugee cuts, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that requires state and local government officials to provide written consent before refugees can be resettled in their communities. The order could allow officials to effectively block the resettlement of refugees in their areas.

“For many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia,” Mr. Trump told an almost entirely white crowd in Minneapolis this month. He would “give local communities a greater say in refugee policy,” he continued.

Residents in Missoula, a fairly liberal town centered around the University of Montana, fear the order could resurrect tensions that surfaced three years ago when Missoulans, inspired by a photograph of a drowned Syrian refugee boy, rallied to bring a resettlement office to the town.
Scores of Montanans, many from surrounding counties like Flathead and Ravalli, traveled to Missoula in 2016 to protest the refugees, predicting a “government sponsored” invasion by “jihadists.”

Parts of the Flathead Valley north of here have had a reputation for being a haven for white nationalists. A dispute between a local real estate agent and the mother of the white nationalist Richard Spencer in nearby Whitefish prompted a white supremacist website to rally attacks on the area’s Jewish residents and call for an armed neo-Nazi march through the streets of the town.

To the south, residents of Ravalli County loudly voiced their concerns as well. The county commission sent a letter to Montana state and congressional officials claiming that the federal government could not adequately vet the families. Hundreds packed a public hearing that would normally attract a couple of dozen people, and they expressed fear that the refugees would bring martial law to the community.
“I think there is a threat from some of those groups but not the individual refugees,” the Ravalli County Commission chairman, Jeff Burrows, said in an interview. “But it’s possible,” he added. “We just don’t know.”

Bob Pechy, a 56-year-old resident of the county since 2006, said the resistance was rooted in race.

“You see a black person, it stands out,” Mr. Pechy said outside a strip mall in the town of Hamilton. “People around here, they’ll treat them just like anyone else, but overall they don’t want to see a large immigration of people that aren’t the same color as them.”

Missoula’s mayor, John Engen, said refugees had not brought crime, but they had resolved a labor shortage in the community.

Mr. Trump’s community veto order is “designed to make stuff hard and designed to allow people in jurisdictions far away from me that have no idea what Missoula, Mont., is about to send me hate mail,” Mr. Engen said. “It’s about intimidation. You got nothing better to do than to push around the mayor of Missoula, Mont.?”

To supporters like Mr. Engen, the Congolese are filling a void of cultural diversity in a town that is nearly 90 percent white. In the 1980s, Hmong refugees from Laos settled in Missoula. The children of immigrant families are usually the few students of color in city classrooms, while their parents work long hours at businesses eager for the help.

Bob-Be Sparks, a housekeeping manager at the Holiday Inn downtown, said she had hired 28 refugees this year, and just two other residents of Missoula.

One of her hires, Justine Kambale, has since been promoted to supervisor, and Ms. Sparks hopes to elevate other refugees to work with customers behind the counter as their English improves.

“If I don’t have enough people to turn the rooms, the rooms sit vacant overnight and the ownership doesn’t make money,” said Ms. Sparks, who described herself as “very conservative.”

Gilbert Hategeka, 32, who works at a group home caring for the disabled, said the refugee cuts had added to a growing list of problems for the Congolese in Montana. Many, including his brother, have left Missoula because of the high rent and lack of opportunity for better wages.
Now, he is fielding calls from relatives in a refugee camp in Uganda who say buses from humanitarian organizations that used to pick up hundreds from camps for refugee processing are now only carrying a couple. The church that Congolese refugees founded in Missoula now attracts about two dozen worshipers compared with as many as 70 in previous months.

On a recent Sunday, Mr. Hategeka, Mr. Nsanzinfura and Ms. Kambale’s husband, Joel, led a service. A choir that included boys who grew up in Montana sang Congolese hymns for the black and white audience. Zigire Yvonny, who arrived in Missoula two months ago, pulled Mr. Kambale aside to plead for help getting her son to the United States. He had recently emerged from a coma in a camp in Uganda and was waiting for approval to resettle in Missoula.

“He has no father, no mother,” Ms. Yvonny said. “He doesn’t have any brothers or any friends. He has no one who knows him. All the time, he’s called me on the phone saying he’s hungry and has no money.”

Mr. Kambale has assumed the role of liaison between government officials and the refugee community, and translator for Missoula’s refugee resettlement office.

In September, Mr. Kambale and his wife planned to bring their three children to the airport to greet their uncle, who was approved to come to the United States and had a trip booked.

That morning, weeks before the White House would actually announce the cuts, Mr. Kambale was in a meeting with resettlement officials when he heard his brother-in-law’s trip was canceled and his case was delayed.

“Why is God doing this?” his relative asked Mr. Kambale on the phone.

The family has received no updates on his case and is not hopeful. Mr. Kambale planned to greet his brother-in-law the same way he greets all Congolese refugees: by shouting “karibu,” the Swahili word for welcome.

“A language which all refugees can hear,” Mr. Kambale said.

He fears he will not be saying it anytime soon.