"We’re called to serve the vulnerable": New Orleans responds to Trump's immigration order as refugee agencies face uncertain future

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A protest outside City Hall Jan. 29 following a freeze on immigration and refugee entry. - KAT STROMQUIST
  • KAT STROMQUIST
  • A protest outside City Hall Jan. 29 following a freeze on immigration and refugee entry.

A family with three children under 5 years old was expected to arrive in Louisiana this week from Syria, where the death toll of a six-year-old civil war has reached nearly 500,000 people. The family is one of 80 refugee families Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) expected to resettle into Louisiana this year. Following an immigration ban targeting majority-Muslim countries and freezing a refugee program, CCANO is likely not to receive any refugee families for at least the next four months, leaving their safety and future in the U.S. unclear as constitutional questions, nationwide protests and lawsuits challenge an executive order issued within Donald Trump's first week as President.

"Even if they are in a safe location, a refugee camp, to wait two and a half years — they go through a long, rigorous vetting process before they come here — to get to this point where a few days before your departure they tell you, ‘You can’t leave,’ said CCANO's Division Director Martin Gutierrez. "Imagine how disheartening that would be."

Trump's executive order bans immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) for 90 days, and freezes the entry of refugees — people fleeing persecution and violence — for 120 days. Since 1975, the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million people, according to the U.S. Department of State. In 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 100,000 refugees; 162 resettled in Louisiana. Six people have resettled in the state this year.

More than 800,000 people born in those countries are living in the U.S., and more than one-third — nearly 300,000 people — aren't yet citizens, according to The Marshall Project. Trump's order turns his campaign trail promise of a "total and complete ban" of Muslim entry into the U.S. into a means of "extreme vetting." Refugee entry into the U.S. already is a process that often takes up to two years, from registration and referrals to interviews, background checks, orientations, and, finally, contact with resettlement agencies like CCANO, part of a network of half a dozen similar organizations in the country. CCANO operates through the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.

"Oftentimes these refugees already have contacts, family members, friends in the country," said Gutierrez, who sought political asylum in the U.S. from Nicaragua. People entering the U.S. as refugees often are reunited with families or friends or a network of support on which families depend once they're in the country. CCANO's job is to "start doing the groundwork to make sure the family or individual has the basic needs to make this their new home." An immigration ban could dramatically change whether refugees can contact families outside the U.S., if at all.

"Many of the families here already who have resettled in the U.S., including in our own area, hope to one day be reunited with other family members," he said. "It’s our call as Christians to help our fellow man. It doesn’t matter what nationality or religion they’re from, we’re called to serve the vulnerable. We believe there are mechanisms in place already to ensure our security at the same without sacrificing our values ... The Archdiocese of New Orleans has been doing this for many, many years, and we’ll continue to do this. It’s our duty."



As similar refugee agencies face "the same story" across the U.S., Gutierrez says, New Orleans' immigrant advocacy and civil rights groups are demanding security and solidarity from city and state officials. As thousands of protesters rallied at airports around the U.S., New Orleans joined with a day of protest at City Hall ending with a march to Lee Circle. A few dozen protesters also stood outside Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Louisiana are monitoring for detainees.

And at a press conference Jan. 29, advocates demanded action before the long-term impacts of Trump's order are felt locally.

Norahyr Vartanian immigrated to the U.S. from Baghdad, Iraq in 2008 to study engineering at Texas A&M. He's pursuing an MBA at Tulane University. "Seeking a quality education and security are what inspired me to stay in this country all those years," he said. His parents still live in Iraq.

"Muslims and Christians have communities together based on love and respect," he said. "We can’t move backwards. Our predecessors have fought so hard to make this country great, and we need to keep this fight going for our future generations."

The order has a "profoundly negative impact on people of the greater New Orleans area and the state of Louisiana," said Saira Mehmood with New Orleans Palestine Solidarity Committee. The group's list of demands calls for increased civil rights protections for vulnerable immigrant communities and an end to discriminatory police behavior, as Trump's order threatens using federal authorities to assume control of local police. The letter — addressed to Gov. John Bel Edwards, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, as well as the Louisiana Legislature and city officials — urged for a response by noon Feb. 1.

The letter demands city and state officials refuse to engage in immigration enforcement, enforce anti-bias measures within NOPD and other law enforcement, and refuse to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on agreements that effectively deputize local police to operate under Homeland Security, and prevent local police from working with ICE to hold undocumented people in local jails.

The letter also demands the city "refuse to put immigrants and Muslims at risk of discrimination and harm through increased surveillance" — as the Landrieu administration begins to roll out a sweeping surveillance measure with hundreds of cameras. It also demands that police don't collect information on immigration or religious status or submit to the feds a list of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants, as mandated by the order.

New Orleans City Councilmember At-Large Jason Williams outside City Hall Jan. 30. - ALEX WOODWARD
  • ALEX WOODWARD
  • New Orleans City Councilmember At-Large Jason Williams outside City Hall Jan. 30.

"A more effective tool for increasing community safety and reducing crime is to invest in community plans and community organizations," the letter reads. The groups also oppose new construction or expansion of local jails and ask the city to consider expanding the practice of issuing citations for municipal offenses. "Especially considering the fact that both the New Orleans Police Department and the local jail remain under a consent decree established in part due to discriminatory policing based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation as well as a documented pattern of other civil rights abuses," the letter reads, "the city should commit to de-criminalization and decarceration. Investing in community initiatives, harm reduction services, or treatment can improve public safety and health and is good public policy."

The groups also demand the city and state "commit to only promoting and enforcing local policies that uphold all community members' human rights" through the creation of "human rights investment screens" ensuring local funds don't support human rights violations locally or abroad.

The demands have the moderate support of at least one city official. New Orleans City Councilmember At-Large Jason Williams — who also joined protesters Jan. 29 — stood with the crowd gathered on City Hall's steps Jan. 30. Williams told Gambit that most of the letter's demands "are in the works" through the U.S. Department of Justice consent decrees with NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison.

"Obviously with someone like Donald Trump in office, we have to be more specific, and even more robust," Williams said. "I'm going to meet with the mayor, with colleagues,
and really talk about things in light of how quickly the White House is moving. I don’t think anyone was expecting something to so broad-sweeping in the first week .. It’s so poorly thought out that we’re doing to have to do a lot of that work on our own. All politics is local. We’ve got to make sure this city is the city we want it to be."



As the press conference began, Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement asking Trump to consider rescinding the order, which Landrieu called "un-American, un-Christian and will not make us safer."

"Trump’s discriminatory travel ban will make our country less safe because it will further alienate us from Muslim allies in the fight against terrorism and extremism," Landrieu said. “New Orleans will remain a welcoming city because we know that our diversity is a strength. We also know all too well what it feels like to seek shelter and refuge in a place that is not your home ... Some of the darkest times in our nation’s history were when immigrants, minorities, refugees or the most vulnerable among us were discriminated against by our government. History will judge this as one of those times if we do no act.”

Landrieu's comments came less than a week after his defense of NOPD's policies in the wake of Trump's plans to cut off federal funding to so-called "sanctuary cities" for people living in the country illegally, in which New Orleans has been accused of refusing to cooperate with ICE on immigration matters. Landrieu said NOPD "will not be coerced into joining Trump’s deportation army."

Other New Orleans officials also have challenged the order. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, called it unconstitutional, "unjust, counterproductive and immoral."

“The United States has stood as a beacon of freedom and inspiration. We welcome the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free to our shores.," he said. "This president has chosen to re-brand our country as one that rejects these principles."

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond said the archdiocese supports "protection for all vulnerable refugees, regardless of nationality or religion."

"The recent Executive Orders regarding immigration and refugee resettlement do not support our Catholic principles," he said a statement. "While we must provide for the security of our communities and our nation, we must regulate our borders in a way that is just and merciful and supports the dignity of the human person and families. We must reach out with compassion to those who have lost loved ones and who are victims of persecution and violence."

Sister Marjorie Hebert with CCANO said the organization "will continue to serve refugees, immigrants and their families with compassionate care that respects the dignity of each person."


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