A family from Afghanistan has been scheduled to land in Omaha on Tuesday through a refugee resettlement program, reuniting with other family members who arrived earlier.
But plans for a joyful reunion were up in the air Saturday in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement. The order began to play out immediately after Trump signed it Friday, including the specter of previously approved refugees being detained upon arriving at U.S. airports.
“There are people in various stages of the process, on different legs of travel coming into the United States,” said Todd Reckling of Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, one of two agencies that assist refugees in Omaha. “People are anxious to see how this plays out.”
Refugee resettlement officials said they knew of no Nebraska-bound refugees who had been detained. However, Lutheran Family Services over the next week has three refugee families due in Omaha and six more coming to Lincoln, those refugees originating from Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Sudan and Ethiopia. The Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha has families from Somalia and Burma set to arrive next week, and many more the week after that.
With Trump’s order suspending refugee resettlement for 120 days, the refugee agencies are now left to wonder who will be coming and who won’t.
Kathy Moore, interim director of the Refugee Empowerment Center, said the latest guidance her agency has received is that refugees set to arrive by Wednesday will likely come unless they’re from seven Muslim-majority countries specifically mentioned in Trump’s order. Beginning Thursday, all refugee arrivals would be suspended, Moore said.
Court decisions also could have an impact on what happens in the days ahead, with a New York judge Saturday night barring deportation of those under the order who have valid visas.
Some refugees entered the United States just ahead of the order, including two families that arrived in Omaha on Thursday night and an Iranian family that touched down in Lincoln just two hours before Trump signed it. Officials with Lutheran Family Services knew the order was coming Friday and had been anxiously waiting to see whether the family would land first.
“They’re lucky ones. And they know they’re lucky ones,” said Vanja Pejanovic, a resettlement coordinator in Lincoln.
In addition to the 120-day suspension of refugee resettlements, Trump’s order required officials to come up with unspecified new screening procedures; cut the total number of refugees allowed during the current fiscal year from the previously planned 110,000 to 50,000; barred Syrian refugees indefinitely; and blocked any entry into the country for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.
Trump said the measure would ensure that “radical Islamic terrorists” would not enter the United States.
In Nebraska, more than half of all refugees who came last year were from countries subject to Trump’s 90-day travel ban. That included 451 from Iraq, nearly all settling in Lincoln, and 163 from Syria, the vast majority settling in Omaha.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts praised the president’s call to strengthen screening. But U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Saturday the president’s order was too broad. While technically not a Muslim ban, he said, it will be portrayed as such and used by terrorists to tell recruits that America is against Muslims.
“Our generational battle against jihadism requires wisdom,” Sasse said.
Sunday, Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello responded to the order.
“As a former South Omaha state senator who represented the neighborhoods that are the gateways to the 'American Dream' for immigrants and refugees, I strongly believe that President Trump’s latest impulse to ban Muslim refugees is un-American and is everything our community is against."
And Brian Blackford, chairman of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, condemned the order in a statement Saturday, calling it contrary to American values. "These policies will do little to improve national security and will create enormous delays for people coming to the U.S."
Lutheran Family Services is helping organize a multifaith candlelight vigil in response to the order, set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Turner Park in Omaha. Another rally, organized by the Women’s March on Omaha group, is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today at Turner Park.
Even after the 120-day refugee suspension expires, it appears Trump’s decision to slash refugee numbers to 50,000 this fiscal year will slow refugee traffic considerably between now and Sept. 30. It’s believed at least 36,000 of those slots have already been used.
The Refugee Empowerment Center is also facing a potential cash crisis due to the order. Unlike Lutheran, it pays for nearly all its operations with federal resettlement funds, which figure to dry up for 120 days or more.
In addition to confusion, the order was also sparking fear among refugees already here.
Feroz Mohmand, who helps resettle refugees for Lutheran Family Services, had himself fled Afghanistan with his family in 2012. He said when his 7-year-old son heard about the president’s order, he began crying, believing it meant his family would be forced to leave.
Mohmand explained it wouldn’t. But he said it could certainly dash his hopes that his mother will one day join his family here.
“This morning when I called her, she was aware of the news,” he said. “She was having fear for me living here as a citizen.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.