Knoxville Refugee Advocates Await Trump Freeze on Refugees (Updated)

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

UPDATE Jan. 26: Mayor Madeline Rogero’s office released this statement regarding President Trump’s immigration orders:

“Like mayors across the country, I am concerned by both the tone and the potential impacts of recent executive orders on immigration. Our nation and our cities are built on the dedication and dreams of generations of immigrants and refugees from around the globe. We are enriched both economically and culturally by the hard work and diversity of our newly arrived residents.

“As I said at the recent National Immigrant Integration Conference in Nashville, every time we have let fear of newcomers drive our politics and our policies, we have made terrible mistakes that have betrayed the spirit and the promise of our founding. We do not set national immigration policy at the city level, but we will work within the law to ensure that Knoxville remains a welcoming place for everyone.

“Chief Rausch and I share a commitment to serving and protecting everyone in our community. When our police officers respond to a call, they do not ask about immigration or citizenship status. That is not part of our jurisdiction, and it is important that everyone feels comfortable calling for help when they need it.”


National media reports indicate that President Donald Trump will announce Wednesday a four-month freeze on refugees coming to the United States, as well as a temporary ban on allowing anyone to come to the U.S. from certain majority-Muslim countries.

Early leaks reported by New York Times and Bloomberg News, among others, indicate the ban of at least 30 days would likely affect arrivals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, countries Trump has labeled threats to American security. (Syria, Iraq and Somalia were among the top five countries home countries of refugees who settled in the U.S. last year.) These policies echo his campaign message of banning Muslims entering the country. 

Trump is also expected to announce budget cuts to the federal refugee placement program as he cuts the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in fiscal 2017. Early reports say that number will drop from the 110,000 planned the Obama Administration (which had envisioned an increase in Syrian refugees) to less than half that, about 50,000.

According to the U.S. State Department, 85,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. during fiscal 2016. The Trump Administration seems to have removed State Department fact sheets that had been posted online to explain the refugee resettlement program, although they remain cached.

Bridge Refugee Services is a Knoxville non-profit, funded by federal grants and donations, that helps refugees resettle in the Knoxville and Chattanooga areas. Drocella Mugorewera, executive director of Bridge, said Wednesday morning that she had received no new notice or direction from federal agencies yet. Bridge had been told to expect about 245 refugees to be relocated in Knoxville during the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

“Of course, we feel disappointment, but we will do whatever he decides,” Mugorewera says. “We hear (Trump) wants money taken from the refugee programs to build the wall,” referring to Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. An announcement about that is also expected today. Yesterday Trump tweeted, “Big day planned on NATIONAL SECURITY tomorrow. Among other things, we will build the wall!”

Mugorewera says she doesn’t believe the changes will affect the refugees who are already here that Bridge is helping to support.

“I think it will be a lesson for Americans” to educate themselves about presidential powers and what Trump can legally do, she says.

“I want to see how all of us stand up for our values, because we have been welcoming refugees since World War II,” adds Mugorewera, an American citizen who arrived in Knoxville as a Rwandan refugee in 2008. “I think everyone should send a message to the White House, and maybe with the pressure of people expressing their feelings, they can change minds.”

The refugee program has protected thousands of people of a variety of faiths. Idris Yasir is one of them. He moved to Knoxville from Sudan, one of the countries whose nationals might be temporarily banned from travel to the U.S., with his family last summer through the refugee program.

A long civil war in Sudan riddled his childhood neighborhood with bullets. After wandering the country with his parents and a nightmarish year in a refugee camp, he fled to Egypt, where he worked 16-hour days while facing violent racism for his black skin. His children risked being beaten just trying to walk to school. Yasir applied for refugee status with the United Nations, not caring what country accepted his Muslim family, so long as they could escape.

“In Sudan and Egypt, always you feel that one day they will kill you,” the Muslim refugee said through an interpreter. “But here, you know you are safe.” 

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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