President Trump says travel ban and 'extreme vetting' needed to keep U.S. safe; area refugees say vetting is already thorough, ban stokes fear
Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, the young woman said she came from Libya a month ago on a visitation visa that is good through August. Then, President Donald Trump issued a temporary ban on anyone coming to the U.S. from the country.
Libya is in civil war. Libyan news reports say her hometown, Tripoli, was a battlefield last week to militias fighting with tanks and heavy mortar.
“There is no way for me to go back,” she said. “When my visa runs out and still the situation in Libya is the same or worse, what options do I have?”
“What can I do so I don’t get arrested or deported?”
Nearly 20,000 Ohio residents were born in the countries that Trump says pose the greatest risk to Americans: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya.
This includes 1,622 in southwest Ohio, according to an I-Team analysis of 2011-2015 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Many of them came here as refugees under a program that steadily grew under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Some brought along family members, attended school, laid down roots and became accepted members in their neighborhoods and communities.
'We can’t just turn a blind eye'
The Libyan woman spoke at a forum in Dayton last week on Trump’s immigration-related executive orders. Her interpreter, Ramadan Alhaddad, a U.S. citizen from Libya, said numerous people from Libya and other Arab-speaking countries contacted him for guidance when the orders were enacted.
“They were freaking out and I didn’t have a lot of answers,” he said. “I don’t think anybody has any answers. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s really impacted a lot of people from those countries very bad.”
The Trump administration argues a temporary ban is needed to allow federal officials time to devise a stronger system for vetting immigrants from the seven countries. The order would also stop refugee resettlement from Syria, and pause all refugee resettlement for 120 days, after which the number of refugees admitted will drop from 110,000 to 50,000 nationwide.
However, a federal appeals court on Thursday maintained a freeze on Trump’s immigration order, allowing previously barred refugees and citizens to continue coming to the U.S. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is likely, meaning more uncertainty — and in some cases fear — for those who already live here or have family members who want to come here from one of the seven countries.
Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, an Electoral College delegate for Trump and bullhorn for strengthening immigration laws, says he has no problem with people emigrating to the U.S. from these countries.
“There’s people in those countries that fight with us, and help us, and we should allow them to come into this country — after they’re vetted,” he said. “Bringing them in when we know a certain percentage of these people from these seven countries are terrorists, and they are ghosting — or blending in — we can’t just turn a blind eye to that.”
Jones said Democrats and Republicans share blame for not working together to improve the system.
“They need to work together and fix this,” he said.
Refugee numbers rise
Catholic Social Services, which administers federal refugee resettlement locally, helped 376 refugees resettle to the Dayton area last year. About 12 percent of them came from Iraq, one of the countries on the banned list.
Spokesman Mike Lehner said the current vetting process already takes more than two years. The average Iraqi spends three to nine years in a refugee camp before coming to Dayton, he said.
“It’s already what I would classify as extreme vetting,” he said.
Lehner said the number of refugees his agency has helped has steadily increased over the years, relocating roughly 2,000 in the last decade.
About 70 percent of local refugees come from the Congo, according to Lehner, where about 600,000 refugees are waiting in refugee camps, many for years on end.
“A lot of these people (in Dayton) have family and friends sitting over there waiting to be resettled, and now they are waiting a little longer,” he said.
Some local refugees are Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military during the war, or are fleeing a part of the country under Islamic State control.
“(They are) Christians, Muslims who don’t believe the same things Islamic extremists do and might be persecuted for their beliefs,” Lehner said.
Catholic Social Services gets about half its budget from federal settlement payments, using the money to help refugees find housing and jobs. Although refugees qualify for benefits such as food stamps, Lehner said 86 percent of local refugees find work within 90 days.
If the number of refugees goes down, so too does the money Catholic Social Services has to help those already here.
OSU attacker Somalian
Critics of Trump’s executive order note that none of those who perpetrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks were from countries on the banned list. Nor have any deadly terror attacks since been traced to people from those countries.
There have, however, been non-deadly attacks by people from some of the countries on the banned list.
Abdul Razak Ali Artan, 20, who was shot dead by police in November after an attack using his car and a knife that injured 11 people at Ohio State University, came to the U.S. in 2014 with his family as refugees from Somalia who spent years at a refugee camp in Pakistan. Authorities say the attack may have been inspired by ISIS.
Other incidents were carried out by Americans or people from elsewhere. A machete attack at a Columbus restaurant last year — which the Trump administration said received little media attention — was carried out by a man from West Africa, according to several stories in this newspaper.
Local terror suspect Christopher Lee Cornell of Cincinnati pleaded guilty last year to charges that he plotted to attack the U.S. Capitol in support of ISIS during Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. He is a U.S. citizen.
After Thursday’s ruling Trump tweeted: “SEE YOU IN COURT. THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”
But others argue that no amount of vetting can predict the behavior of those who may have ill intent.
“How do you peer into someone’s heart to determine what their motivations are and what they intend to do?’ asked Jessica Ramos, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. “Our current system is already extremely slow and extremely backlogged.”
‘Getting a visa is not an easy task’
Ramadan Alhaddad said his brother — whose wife is American — has been trying to get permission to come to the United States for 16 months. U.S. officials have asked for numerous documents proving he has no criminal background in Libya, or what he was doing when he went to Tunisia where his mother was hospitalized for several months.
Alhaddad provided photos of his brother’s house outside of Benghazi, well-adorned before it was destroyed by a missile strike in December. His brother, Nori Hussein, was left displaced by the ongoing civil war, said Alhaddad, who said other family members too have been denied visas to visit or attend school.
His nephew is being held in Colorado by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his student visa expired and he is trying to get asylum, Alhaddad said.
He says he knows students — green card holders — now fearing deportation or being stranded out of the country because of the ban.
“These people have went through a very rigorous vetting process before they were even given a chance to interview with immigration, let alone a visa,” he said, “Because getting a visa is not an easy task for anybody.”
“These people, they (immigration officials) know who they are, they have been here for many years, they are students, they have houses they have kids here, some have relatives they left behind and went to visit and come back and now they are not able.”
An Iraqi refugee’s story
Of the seven countries in Trump’s order, Iraq accounts for the largest number of residents living in Montgomery County, according to census data. Many local Iraqis came here as refugees.
This includes Mohamed Al-Hamdani, who was 10 years old when his family came to Dayton from As Samawah, Iraq, as refugees in 1992.
Al-Hamdani’s father fought in an unsuccessful U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein shortly after the first Gulf War, Al-Hamdani said last week. The family hadn’t heard from his father in months and feared he was dead when one night his mother came into his room.
“I remember her coming to my bed and saying, ‘Your father is alive and we are going to smuggle you out of the country,’” he said.
Al-Hamdani’s mother and four siblings re-united with their father in a refugee camp in Rafha, Saudi Arabia. There, they stayed for 18 months as their refugee application was approved first by the United Nations and then by U.S. officials.
“You’re living in a tent in the middle of the desert heat,” he said. There was no school, desert storms were common and food and water was trucked in, he recalled.
“Not everyone in the refugee camp, because of the stringent background checks, made it out of the refugee camp,” he said.
Al-Hamdani’s family found Dayton welcoming. They became citizens. He went to school, graduating from Wright State University and later the University of Dayton.
He worked for several years as an Iraqi cultural instructor for the U.S. military after the surge of 2007. He and other refugees helped train U.S. marines at Camp Pendleton. Others in Iraq who worked as guides or interpreters are currently seeking refugee status because their work with the U.S. military puts their families at risk.
“How stringent can you make it?” he asked of the vetting. “Two years? Three years? Four years?”
“(America) is the light on top of the hill people run to. Now it’s like we are turning off the light and saying, ‘Please stay out.’”
(Background photo: Mohamed Al-Hamdani helps train U.S. marines preparing to deploy from Camp Pedleton to Iraq after the surge.)
Staff Writer Katie Wedell contributed to this report.