Building Immigrant Communities in the Trump Era
In the winter of 2011, Shyam Rai landed in Syracuse Hancock International Airport, a sleepy two-runway airfield in central New York, after a 24-hour flight from Kathmandu, Nepal. A volunteer from the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, a local resettlement agency, greeted him and drove him to Utica, a former manufacturing town that after many years of steady depopulation had found new life through its growing population of resettled refugees. But when the volunteer left him, Rai was alone in a cold, dark house, without any idea how to turn on the heat or lights. Seven years later, Rai is helping to teach others the ins and outs of daily life in Utica, about a quarter of whose residents are now resettled refugees.
For 18 years, Rai lived in a camp in Nepal, where he and thousands of other Nepali speakers had languished in stateless limbo after Bhutan stripped them of their citizenship and expelled them in the mid-1990s. Today, he has a cozy apartment in a house that he shares with relatives who followed him to the United States. His parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and a slew of US-born children all live within a few blocks of each other. For the past six years, he’s worked at the nearby Chobani yogurt factory. His home serves as a hub for religious holidays and family events. When I visited him in August, signs of past celebrations were all around—bunches of silk flowers, paper marigold garlands, and streamers from his son’s first birthday.
Most importantly, he has US citizenship at a time when the Trump administration has packed away the welcome mat for refugees. In 2011, Rai was one of more than 50,000 refugees who were admitted to this country. This year, the United States will resettle just 22,000, according to the International Rescue Committee. “Our life is really nameless and homeless when I was living in the refugee camp,” Rai told me, trying to convey what it was like to be stateless. The United States “gave us citizen[ship]. I don’t have to worry for my name anymore.” Rai no longer feels invisible; he is a man with a place in the world.
But his concerns didn’t end once he received his US passport. As the eldest son and first in his family to come to the United States, Rai feels responsible for his relatives. He cares for three disabled family members who live together in a nearby apartment—his wheelchair-bound grandmother, his physically disabled grandfather, and his mentally disabled uncle. He found them new apartments when the resettlement agency placed them in an unsafe house without wheelchair accessibility, when their floorboards were infested with insects, and when their pipes burst. He accompanies them to doctors’ appointments, and arranges for his sisters to receive funding to provide in-home care. Without his help translating paperwork, they once missed a deadline to file for an extension and went nearly six months without much-needed food stamps.
When the resettlement-agency staff told his sister that as an 18-year-old she was ineligible for public school and she was instead placed in a part-time, short-term ESL course, he rushed over to the Legal Aid office and pushed to have her named as one of six plaintiffs in what eventually became a class-action discrimination case against the city. The case was finally settled in July 2016, granting her permission to enroll in high school for the 2017–18 year. She is now hoping a full high-school education will help her create a life in the United States.
Rai’s wife, parents, and three of his sisters do not speak or read English well enough to navigate their own daily or health-care needs. Many of those in his family who can work have to contend with the physical and social impacts of their prolonged stay in a refugee camp. His mother, who ran a brutally demanding business harvesting, bundling, and transporting bamboo to sell to fellow refugees in the camp, told me, “Before there was lots of working, now there are knee problems and joint problems.”
He is, in essence, a caseworker for nine people—no small task for a young man working a $10-an-hour factory job. He is grateful for what he has, but he wants a better life for himself and his wife and son. He wants to go to school part-time and start a business. He has the energy, creativity, and experience. As an undocumented refugee in Nepal, he started half a dozen ventures to keep his family fed, including sourcing betel nut from mountain villages and putting together construction crews to work as contractors across the Indian border in Sikkim. But in the United States, he lacks the time and resources to pursue the career he wants.
Stories like Rai’s are typical for refugees across the country. In the wake of adversity and trauma, refugees are quick to grasp where the cursory formal support systems leave off, and learn to take care of themselves and each other. In fact, a growing number of once-declining towns like Utica are looking to refugees to take care of them too, revitalizing their once blighted neighborhoods and starting businesses. But this work often falls on the shoulders of a few healthy, resourceful, English-speaking individuals, and—without support from longer-standing, better-positioned communities—the strain can prove too great. Like all new arrivals, refugees are adept at providing a safety net for themselves, but a safety net is only as strong as the density of its webbing and thickness of its rope. To stay effective, it will also require regular reinforcement and repair.
While many Bhutanese Nepalis have been resettled in northern European countries that funnel arrivals into mandatory language and cultural-education programs and provides much more generous social services than they might find here, Rai told me it’s better in the United States, where “I can be independent, I can do for myself.”
Rai is a believer in what those in the refugee-resettlement field call the bootstrap model. Its limitations, though, are clear. “It is unreasonable to expect everyone to adjust easily, manage health problems quickly, and contribute to the economic situation of their host cities,” said Kathryn Stam, an anthropology professor at SUNY Polytechnic and president of Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC), a community space for refugee youth.
She stressed that for many refugees, “past physical and emotional traumas and lack of educational opportunities mean that their members may not be able to work or go to school for many years after arrival.” Supporting these family members, along with themselves, falls to people like Rai.
Refugees who are formally resettled in the United States arrive with legal status and most are given 90 days of social services to connect them with a home, work, and interim benefits—but they must repay the loans for their airfare that they receive from the International Organization for Migration. Many humanitarian immigrants, like asylum seekers or trafficking victims, don’t even get this support, and struggle with poverty, often facing homelessness or finding income only in low-wage, off-the-books gigs. Once they are granted asylum or immigration relief, which can take a decade or more, then they are eligible for short-term support.
What support these refugees should have and from whom it should come are central questions for policy-makers. Nearly all scholars and resettlement experts agree that refugees and host countries benefit more from long-term transitional models of integration than from the interim-support models like in the United States. Five countries—the UK, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, and New Zealand—have en
dorsed a pilot version of Canada’s community-based refugee sponsorship model, which places refugees within networks of sponsors who help integrate them into their new homes over the long term. These networks connect new migrants to work, support services, and grassroots mechanisms like peer lending, scholarship pools, and mutual assistance associations. This in turn helps immigrants buy homes, send their kids to college, and start businesses.
Yet supporting such an approach seems unlikely in the United States as long as Donald Trump is in the White House. As recently as 2014, President Barack Obama requested guidance on how best to create welcoming communities for refugees. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which has assisted in resettlement for nearly 70 years, wrote, “The United States is fortunate that many elements of a positive immigrant integration strategy are already in place in our society, compared to other nations where economic opportunities are closed off, anti-immigrant hostility is rampant, and immigrant communities are isolated.”
Two years later, the United States increasingly resembles those “other nations” that LIRS described. Trump has made it a state priority to reduce immigration, shrink existing immigrant communities, and slash the funding to support them.
Since coming into office, Trump has suspended refugee resettlement from certain predominantly Muslim countries, canceled the temporary protective status for more than 300,000 refugees from Sudan, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Nepal, and Honduras, and separated children from their parents as part of a zero-tolerance policy toward unauthorized immigration. Immigrant-rights activists say they are now being targeted for deportation. The president launched a task force to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens whose applications contained errors or discrepancies, and he has recently announced that it would cap refugee resettlement in the coming year at 30,000—the lowest ceiling since the program started in 1980. To top it off, his administration said it plans to narrow the path to permanent residence or citizenship for legal immigrants who have ever used public benefits, like children’s health insurance or food stamps.
These policies foster an atmosphere of terror intended to drive immigrant communities into silence or out of the country. Paralyzed with fear and reacting to one crisis after another, immigrant community networks are unable to be the source of support and resilience they once were. “There are so many issues, attacks on all sides that it’s difficult for communities to rally around the most vulnerable,” said Claire Thomas, director of New York Law School’s Asylum Clinic. Migration advocates and resettlement experts across the country argue that these policies have had a chilling effect on legal immigrants, including refugees and asylees, deterring many from applying for benefits they need and qualify for.
Rai told me that despite Trump-era policies he still has hope for his life here in the United States. Recent ICE raids in Utica and nearby Rome seem to be affecting undocumented communities but not refugees, he said. Still, in the past, he and other Bhutanese Nepali refugees in Utica had built bridges to other immigrant groups in other cities; now his community is increasingly sticking to itself. This means more pressure and less support: “When I am in alone, questions come in my head,” Rai said. “Whatever I want to do, I cannot do.”
This stress takes a toll. Between 2009 and 2012, 16 Bhutanese Nepali refugees in the United States committed suicide, and, although none of these happened in Utica, the aftershocks of these deaths reverberated throughout the tight-knit Bhutanese Nepali communities nationwide. Many of the Bhutanese Nepali refugees in Utica I spoke to say they take medication for depression and anxiety.
Stam and her colleague Chris Sunderlin, executive director of MUCC, pointed out that there are actually a number of great programs and resources available to help new arrivals integrate into US society, but that many refugees have limited ability to access them. MUCC in fact grew out of the need that they and others identified in their roles as volunteers at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center, the area’s resettlement agency. MUCC has created a space for the kind of cross-cultural integration and welcoming that is rare in Trump’s America. An airy building with a kitchen, raised-bed garden, and bench-lined porch, MUCC has become a gathering place for refugee teens from nearly two dozen ethnic backgrounds. Here, a Karen K-pop dance group might work out new moves, while a local ROTC troop conducts flag drills, while a volunteer tutors Somali Bantu students, while a scrum of teens cooks a multiethnic feast to be served on long tables for whomever is around that day. MUCC runs academic, cultural, and wellness programs onsite, but most importantly, it brings together refugees from insular communities with other locals and volunteers to create an entirely new community, one that is diverse, joyful, and growing.
MUCC is just the kind of community-based organization that is uniquely positioned to serve these new communities. In a political climate that has darkened for immigrants and refugees, refugee-resettlement specialists are looking to partnerships with community organizations that can provide the lasting transitional support that works, and that help alleviate the pressures someone like Rai is forced to carry on their own.
The Office of Refuge Resettlement offers a range of grants designed to support grassroots initiatives, like funding suicide prevention in the Bhutanese Nepali community or liaison officers to work with local police to understand and prevent violent crimes against refugees. In Utica, partnerships between locals and refugees have flourished; there’s a Women’s English conversation group for Sudanese women, and an informal tutoring program for high-school students from different communities. But many of these measures are underfunded and could benefit from federal funding that is drying up as refugee numbers are capped and government agencies dedicated to supporting refugees are gutted.
Despite Utica’s openness to refugees, over the last year, the Bhutanese Nepali community has been getting smaller. Some 30 families have packed up and moved to Ohio, cutting the town’s Nepali-speaking population in half.
They’re leaving to take advantage of larger communities in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. The rent in Utica is lower than in Ohio, and the jobs there are no better than in northern New York—processing meat instead of packaging yogurt or cleaning hotels instead of casinos. Dal, Rai’s mother’s brother in law, explained, “In America, job and government benefit is the priority, then community. Our people always choose community first.”
Rai elaborated that in Ohio there are more Bhutanese Nepalis to care for the children and elderly, and there are Nepali-language interpreters who can help with the citizenship process. The social network is larger, providing the best pathway to integration, whether the immigrants are skilled H1B visa holders, resettled refugees, or asylees.
Of course, immigrant networks can’t do it all. Driven into the shadows to avoid being detained or deported, vulnerable immigrants often live in crowded makeshift dorms, work in sweatshops, and must pay off loans from predatory loan sharks—all in their own communities. But if we could stop inflicting pain on immigrant communities, and instead form viable partnerships with grassroots organizations, we mi
ght be on our way to a more humane, comprehensive system of long-term integration for refugees and asylum seekers.
What might such a system look like? For now, immigration-court backlogs may be unavoidable, but it would be both less costly and more humane to provide temporary work visas to those who pass an initial credible-fear test than to force asylum seekers into homelessness and poverty. In New York, where asylum laws are more generous than in other states, asylum seekers have a right to work if their cases have been pending in court for 150 days or more, but this lengthy waiting period is unnecessary.
While young people in immigrant communities benefit from the integrating aspects of school, older refugees often struggle with isolation. Culturally sensitive senior community centers, like those founded by earlier arrivals in the Chinese and Indian communities, could alleviate this. Mosques have been an invaluable support to Syrian refugees, and churches and synagogues have provided interim housing to asylum seekers on an ad hoc basis. Financial assistance and home-sharing programs, in which newer arrivals at risk of homelessness might find temporary placement with a community member who shares their native language or diet, could greatly benefit nonreligious people or members of non-congregational religions.
Throughout the last century, polls have consistently shown high rates of public opposition to admitting large numbers of refugees. At the same time, the US public includes large and long-standing immigrant communities whose vast networks can support new arrivals where the government is unable or unwilling to do so. These networks ought to be supported and funded rather than dismantled and driven into hiding. Time and again, studies show that communities are not just sources of resilience and support for their own but also engines of economic activity. Instead of weakening mixed-status immigrant communities, the United States should be encouraging them to do what they already do: strengthen and stabilize our nation.
Kavitha Rajagopalan is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West and a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. She writes about migrants and refugees.
Co-published with The Nation.