"Missoula" is a wistful word in scattered circles of Africa and the Middle East.
Refugees in Tanzania and Congo, Burundi, Jordan and Baghdad wait for word on the “processing” that will reunify them with families in faraway Montana, America, even as the process grinds almost to a stop.
Jen Barile waits too. As director of Montana’s lone resettlement agency for the International Rescue Committee, she has welcomed 10 newcomers to Missoula in the past two months, all of them relatives of Congolese heritage, all on the same Tuesday of Nov. 5.
Barile has received no word of when the next arrivals will come as President Donald Trump, a Republican, takes steps to limit or end the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The latest is a presidential determination providing for just 18,000 refugees in the fiscal year that ends next Sept. 30, an all-time low in the 40-year-old program.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” Barile said last week. “What we do know is that even though we’re in fiscal year 2020 and we still have to apply in order to resettle refugees, the State Department has extended our 2019 C.P.P., our Consolidated Placement Plan, so it continues to be 100.”
The target of 100 a year, down from the 125 the Missoula office started with in 2016, is the minimum number to keep open an office such as the IRC’s in Missoula.
And there are further complications. An executive order from President Trump would require resettlement offices, with some exceptions, to secure consent from state governors and local government officials before receiving more refugees. Its legality has been challenged, and even though she doesn’t believe the order is constitutional, Barile has reached out to Democrats Gov. Steve Bullock, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Missoula County commissioners.
The response, as expected, has been favorable.
“Citizens have told me pretty relentlessly there is an expectation for Missoula do its part for resettlement,” Engen said.
Barile wonders about the ripple effects if the executive order is upheld.
"Is it possible, if there are states that will not allow refugees to be resettled, would that impact states like Montana? Would we be sharing some of the responsibilities for those who cannot be resettled in other states?”
There’s no doubt that should the refugee pipeline to Missoula dry up, it will have an effect on Soft Landing Missoula. But the group that formed in 2015 and successfully pushed for a resettlement office in Missoula isn’t going away, said executive director Mary Poole.
“Soft Landing is very, very solid in our presence in the community and our purpose and mission and goals here,” Poole said. “We are staying regardless of what happens.”
In Missoula it’s easy to confuse the purposes and missions of Soft Landing and the IRC. Both are geared to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people rebuild their lives. And both are buoyed by volunteers from Missoula and, increasingly, around Montana.
“We get to be the outward face for creating a welcoming community,” Poole said. “I feel like we hold a really unique space here because we have so many community members engaged with our work.”
Foremost in that work are youth programs: after-school tutoring, mentorship and monthly social outings. Bridging cultures with food is another area in which Soft Landing specializes, said Poole.
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The IRC is one of nine private agencies that have agreements with the U.S. State Department to provide critical reception and placement services for new arrivals. They're governed and funded by the federal refugee program.
All 341 refugees who’ve arrived in Missoula since August of 2016 have been subjected to extensive vetting overseas, a process that can take years.
Once they get here, they’re eligible through the IRC for assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Refugees receive cash and medical assistance for up to eight months, as well as job training, employment services and English language classes.
Barile said her office performs other critical tasks such as helping new arrivals apply to bring spouses or children over. The Trump administration has imposed stricter vetting procedures, and waiting times for family members are being extended even further. That leaves many refugees eligible to resettle in the U.S. in dangerous situations.
Another little known service the IRC provides is processing green card applications. Through no fault of the agency, that has Waleed Albujasim in a tizzy.
He, his wife, Wasan, and young sons, Homody and Ali, were the first Iraqi refugees to arrive in Missoula nearly three years ago. Albujasim, 37, graduated in English from the University of Babylon. He’s the IRC’s staff Arabic interpreter, and brought with him commendations from U.S. military brass for interpretive services provided during the Iraq war. When the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011, it left Albujasim and many like him vulnerable in their own country.
“I applied to come here as a refugee because I was a veteran, and I was waiting about four or five years to come here, which is hard, hard for me and my family, and disappointing,” he said.
Refugees don’t need green cards to live and work in the United States. But the card signifies legal permanent residence in the U.S. and would mean the world to Waleed and Wasan.
“I want to feel like I belong here,” he said.
But after three years in Montana, and almost two years after applying for the card, he still doesn’t have his. Albujasim wonders about the holdup.
“A lot of people who came here after us, they got their green cards while we are not,” he said.
It’s another unsettling delay in the immigration process, Barile said. A green card application requires a trip to Helena to provide fingerprints. That's followed by a wait of an average of 13 months in Montana for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to administer.
“Some people’s green cards are taking longer. We don’t know why,” Barile said. “We have talked to the USCIS. They tell us it should not be specific to someone’s nationality. So, for example, Iraqi green card applications should not be taking longer than Congolese (applications). So Waleed’s nervous.”
The administration’s policy changes for immigrants and refugees don’t help the nervousness.
“People are anxious about having their green cards,” Barile said. “They feel like it may be a protection. We know that might not necessarily be true, but it’s peace of mind for people.”
“It’s sad. Very sad,” Albujasim said. “My wife is crying all the time. I would look for these terms: sad, brokenhearted, disappointed, not fair. Do you think this is fair?”