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‘Refugees, welcome!’ State and local leaders send message to White House

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“Refugees, welcome.”

It’s a seemingly simple, well-intentioned message from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration that is overshadowed by politics.

At an event at Denver’s Union Station this week, Hickenlooper and his administration’s agencies lined up refugees to share inspirational stories of finding success in America, juxtaposed with heart-wrenching tales of struggle as these refugees emerged from war-torn and persecuted nations.

While the event staged by the governor’s administration seems innocent on the state level, it sets the state up on a collision course with the White House.

The Trump administration says it will wait until next week to unveil a new ban on refugees and travelers from some majority-Muslim countries.

President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order canceled tens of thousands of visas, stranding travelers worldwide and sparking mass protests at airports, before a federal appeals court blocked the order. Trump had promised to reveal a revised order this week.

Inside a room in the lower level of Union Station, refugees expressed their fears and anxiety surrounding Trump’s actions. State leaders tried to alleviate concerns by opening their arms.

“I want to make sure I, as warmly as possible, extend a welcome to all of you,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said. “Looking out today, I don’t see a risk to our way of life, or a threat, or a danger. I see neighbors, friends, colleagues.”

The event brought together 75 refugees from countries, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

They wore Colorado flag lapel pins and spoke either in English or through a translator. The Syrian refugee-owned Shish Kabob Grill in Denver provided food for the reception.

Colorado has resettled 2 to 3 percent of all refugees admitted to the United States each year. In 2016, Colorado resettled 1,960 refugees.

Until the Trump administration’s executive order, Colorado had expected 2,195 refugees would resettle in the state in the 2017 federal fiscal year. The executive order could decrease the number by half.

Last year, refugees resettled in Colorado found jobs within 84 days on average. So far this fiscal year, refugees seeking work have found jobs within 61 days on average.

The event this week also had support from the business community, including Sage Hospitality, which has employed 458 newly arrived refugees since 1997. Sage has hired 36 newly arrived refugees since last October, totaling almost 10 percent of all jobs new refugees have gained in recent months.

Refugees spoke of the extensive vetting process that they went through, including clearing multiple background checks. Each background check is done independently, including reviews of biographical and biometric information. It can take months to years to clear the initial screening and an average additional two years to clear the U.S. vetting process.

Local mayors, including from Denver and Aurora, also spoke about the need to welcome refugees into communities.

“I’m going to be very clear in my disposition that the policies … coming out of the White House today are wrong,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “They have resulted in chaos and confusion and fear in our communities.”

It is a somewhat bold move for state and city leaders to so publicly declare their opposition to Trump’s policies on both immigration and refugees. Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from local jurisdictions that offer sanctuary.

Meanwhile, speculation continues to grow as to how Trump plans on handling undocumented immigrants and refugees. Fears of raids and roundups and further travel bans are proliferating. Some immigrants have already taken refuge in Colorado churches.

Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who also attended the event this week, acknowledged that the Hickenlooper administration is becoming more vocal on the subject.

“We welcomed them at a quieter level up until now, but now a reassuring message helps communicate to many people here where Colorado stands in terms of respecting the people that have come here,” Lynne told ColoradoPolitics.com shortly after the event.

Much of the fear around refugees — especially from Syria — gained momentum in 2015 following the Paris terrorist attacks. The Islamic State group took credit for hits on bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a stadium, in which 130 people died.

While none of the Paris attackers were Syrian refugees, a Syrian passport was found at the scene of the crime, though it turned out to be fake.

In the wake of the attacks, Republicans called for a stronger vetting process. That message carried into the election, in which Trump held the torch. His orders are making good on campaign promises. Republicans today say “law-abiding green card holders” should not be caught under the umbrella of Trump’s orders.

Refugees spoke at the Colorado event this week of family members trapped by Trump’s order. One family from Syria was lucky enough to make it to America just over a week before Trump’s order was signed. But another Syrian family watched as their family was left behind.

Farduus Ahmed, a refugee from Uganda who fled violence and came to Colorado in early 2015, has since been climbing the jobs ladder in America. The Somali national who fled to Uganda when she was 16 now works with the Colorado African Organization, a Denver-based nonprofit that helps refugees resettle in the U.S.

“I feel that this is my home,” Ahmed said. “You can do it in America. And we are in a state that believes we matter to them.”

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