Mass. Agencies Scramble To Resettle Refugees — But They Move Amid Legal Chaos

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There is widespread confusion and discord around the enforcement of President Trump's travel ban on refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries.

So much discord that acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates — a holdover from the Obama administration — on Monday night said the Justice Department will not defend the refugee ban so long as she's in office.

Trump promptly fired Yates.

In the middle of all of this, resettlement agencies are scrambling to get as many refugees into the country as possible.

A Family Reunion Amid Political Turmoil

Just after 1 a.m. Tuesday, while chaos and confusion swirled in the political world around them, one family experienced the simple joy of a reunion.

Seventeen-year-old Daniel is a refugee from El Salvador. His family said he is fleeing death threats from the violent gangs that wreak havoc over that country. We agreed to use only his middle name, because he fears for his safety.

His stepfather, Mario Galdamez, hugged Daniel inside Boston's Logan Airport as though he was never going to let him go.

Galdamez has Temporary Protected Status and lives legally in Lynn. He said having his stepson with him after 16 years is a dream come true.

"I'm really happy because now, I have all my family. He was the last one," Galdamez said. "So now, we're going to be all the family together, so, I don't even know what to say about it right now. I'm kind of really, really emotion[al]."

Daniel and his family were reunited after 16 years. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)
Daniel and his family were reunited after 16 years. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)

While Daniel and his stepfather celebrated their reunion, other families have been hearing news that their loved ones won't be coming to the U.S.

Courtney White is a community service manager at the International Institute of New England, a resettlement agency that brings refugees to Lowell, Boston and Manchester, N.H. She helps families from Central America reunite with their loved ones, and she said it's been a tough couple of days.

"To be honest, it's very, it's heartbreaking. Once I received word that the flights were officially canceled for these other children, I did have the unfortunate task of making those phone calls," she said. "And we just don't know when these children will re-book. If they will have to go through the new vetting process, we just don't know how long that will take."

White said Daniel is likely one of the last refugees to be resettled in Massachusetts for quite some time.

Jeff Thielman, CEO of the International Institute, said the agency has until Feb. 3 to resettle refugees who were already en route before Trump's executive order.

"The State Department's [Bureau] of Population, Refugees and Migration issued an order saying that we should still expect refugees this week, up until Friday, and then the program shuts down," he said.

The presidential executive order was signed by Trump last Friday. It barred anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia from entering the country. The order also suspended the refugee resettlement program for all refugees for 120 days — and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.

In his announcement, Trump said the ban is in the name of national security.

"I'm establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here," Trump said. "We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas."

'Not Able To Get On A Plane'

Ever since Trump's announcement, things have unraveled.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has said the order was not meant to apply to green card holders; however, that was never made clear by the administration when Trump signed the order.

Now that several federal courts — including Boston — have issued orders halting Trump's travel ban, it's no surprise that refugee resettlement agencies are dizzied by the pace at which things are changing.

Thielman said the resettlement process has been completely upended.

"We're grateful to the lawyers in Boston and in Brooklyn and in other courts across the country who are fighting this," Thielman said. "But, you know at the moment, our clients who are from those seven Muslim countries are not allowed to travel to the United States, they are not able to get on a plane."

But that flies directly in the face of the Boston federal court order.

According to lawyers who argued for the plaintiffs, all lawful immigrants, including all approved refugees from those seven countries on Trump's list, are supposed to be admitted into the U.S. over the next six days — the duration of the temporary order.

Thielman said that's just not happening. He said the agency coordinating refugee resettlement abroad continues to comply with Trump's executive order.

"What we're hearing through our network is that the International Office of Migration is not allowing refugees from the seven predominately Muslim countries to get on planes to come to the United States," he explained.

So it's becoming more and more clear that there's little agreement about who can legally enter the U.S. in the wake of Trump's executive order.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying it will enforce Trump's executive order and that it will comply with the judicial orders as well.

Civil rights lawyers gathered in airports across the country to make sure the federal court orders are followed, but many international airlines have not been allowing travelers from the seven countries to board planes headed for the U.S.

"... Our clients who are from those seven Muslim countries are not allowed to travel to the United States, they are not able to get on a plane."

Jeff Thielman

And in the meantime, many immigrants, refugees and their families have been living in a state of panic.

At Ascentria Care Alliance, a resettlement agency based in Worcester, employees were doing their best to counsel refugees, but it has been difficult to keep up.

Ascentria's program manager for new Americans, Mohammed Najeeb, said he wishes he could do more for their clients.

"I received calls, they come in person, they're asking me questions that I really don't have answers to and I wish I could have answers to them now," he said.

The problem, it seems, is that the answers are changing every day.

This segment aired on January 31, 2017.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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