In the Age of Trump, St. Louis Refugees See the Door Closing Behind Them

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Angerus "Angelo" Imaniriho with his niece, Elvine Igeno.
Angerus "Angelo" Imaniriho with his niece, Elvine Igeno. JEN WEST

Angerus "Angelo" Imaniriho made it to St. Louis just in time.

After living nearly all of the first twenty years of his life in Congolese refugee camps in the central African country of Rwanda, he had been admitted in 2016 to the United States with his mother, brother, sister and young niece. They arrived with little, but with the help of the International Institute of St. Louis, they have begun to build lives in their adopted country.

On a recent morning, Imaniriho is up early to take the bus from the family's three-bedroom apartment in Bevo Mill to St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, where he is studying to be a nurse. His mother, after working the second shift at a Moscow Mills cookie factory, makes porridge and tea with lots of honey and powdered milk for visitors while his now six-year-old niece sleepily gets ready for school.

"I like St. Louis," Imaniriho, now 23, says. "For me, it's a safe place. I think my life started over here."

But even as he and his family settle into their adopted country, they worry about the door closing behind them. The same year they arrived, Donald Trump was barnstorming across the country, goading crowds into chants of "Build the wall!" and painting refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants as terrorists, rapist and gang members.

Trump has since presided over a crackdown on the immigration system at large. Refugees have proven a particularly easy target, given that they don't have to be deported or caged in controversial camps on U.S. soil — they can be blocked before they ever get here simply by denying visas or setting restrictions unattainably high.

Since taking office, Trump's administration has slashed the cap for refugees each year, driving it down to the lowest levels in four decades. The maximum for 2020 is even lower.

"President Donald Trump has made it almost impossible to get into the U.S., unlike before, where it could be hard and take the longest process, but possible," Imaniriho says.

It is something he pays attention to because he has dozens of friends and relatives, including his father and stepbrother, who still live in the camps and hope to someday move to the United States. Life in the camps is "miserable" and dangerous, Imaniriho says. He describes tents riddled with holes and the struggle to find food.

"Sometimes, they don't have enough," he says. "In the rain times, it's too hard."

They survived by banding together. Even now, he and his family in St. Louis send as much money as they can spare to aid those languishing on the other side of the world, money that would stay here if the recipients were allowed to come to the United States and start working.

"We believe in groups," he explains. "In a group, when you help somebody you do great, but when you are alone, you can only do a few things."

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