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What Will Trump's Exit Mean for St. Louis' Immigrants and Refugees? 

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Donald Trump left the presidency like an angry ex-husband forced to sell the house in a divorce. He and his minions ransacked government programs, punching holes in the walls of critical agencies, selling our democracy for parts and busting the pipes of the infrastructure needed to continue basic bureaucratic functions.

The point was not only to change the way the country operates, but also to jam up the works so that the Biden administration would have to spend all its time trying to mend the damage.

The apparatus of the U.S. refugee resettlement program is just one victim of Trump's vengeance approach to governing.

"They didn't just close things, they didn't just change them, but wherever possible, they actually tried to dismantle or ensure that they could not be restarted easily," Crosslin, of the International Institute of St. Louis, explains.

In 2016, IISTL and other refugee resettlement agencies across the United States had begun accepting Syrians who were fleeing civil war.

Anna Crosslin of the International Institute estimates the organization would have resettled another 4,000 refugees in the past four years if not for changes in U.S. policies. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Anna Crosslin of the International Institute estimates the organization would have resettled another 4,000 refugees in the past four years if not for changes in U.S. policies.

"That came to a grinding halt in 2017 with the president's Muslim ban," Crosslin says.

The ban, which targeted seven largely Muslim countries, suspended the entry of Syrians indefinitely, ostensibly to guard against terrorism. St. Louis has a long history of absorbing people escaping conflicts across the world. It famously adopted tens of thousands of Bosnians in the 1990s and 2000s and large numbers of Vietnamese in the 1980s. And while the arrival of newcomers has always sparked a certain amount of suspicion and bigotry in the early going, that history of offering a safe harbor has become a local point of pride as refugees and their families have fused to the metropolitan region's core.

The number of refugees allowed into the United States each year can vary wildly, depending on what is happening in the world and the need. The president sets the annual cap, and the U.S. had for years led the world in welcoming people fleeing starvation, war and persecution. That changed under Trump.

Spurred by ruthless anti-immigrant, anti-refugee advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, Trump's administration immediately began slashing the slots available and turning away desperate people, including those who had risked their lives to support U.S. troops in conflicts overseas.

"I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America's soil," Miller told former Trump aide Cliff Sims at one point, according to Sims' tell-all book Team of Vipers.

In the 2016 fiscal year (October 1, 2015, to September 30, 2016), the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees. The outgoing Obama administration set the maximum at 110,000 for the following year, but Trump's Muslim ban included a revised cap of just 50,000.

In his first full year in office, the new president officially lowered it to 45,000. But policy changes were already making it much harder for people who would have typically been approved to enter, and only about 22,500 were ultimately allowed in.

Each year, Trump shrunk the cap, decreasing it to its current maximum of 15,000, a new all-time low. Biden has pledged to increase the numbers to 125,000, but it could take years to rebuild the operations needed to reach those levels. In a call with reporters, a transition official said it was "too early" to say whether they would reach the goal in 2021 because "it depends on the state of the infrastructure, which is something we're determining," CNN reported last month.

As the United States slammed the gates on refugees, it lost staff and resources in foreign countries where the initial application process begins. Rebuilding that will take time, and the full extent of the backlog of applicants is not clear. The application process would normally take two or three years. Even if the Biden administration starts working through applications on its first day in office, the timeline for bringing people here will be lagged. Gutting of the federal programs also had the trickle-down effect of cutting into resettlement agencies located around the United States. Without the supply of refugees, organizations cut back on staff. Some closed.

The International Institute of St. Louis, which offers a variety of immigrant services beyond refugee resettlement, fared better than many thanks to a young core of committed staff and community support for its work, Crosslin says. It still had to reduce staff by about 20 percent.

In 2016, IISTL resettled 1,158 refugees. In 2020, that number was 232. Crosslin estimates that the institute would have resettled another 4,000 refugees in St. Louis during the Trump presidency had it not been for the administration's harsh policies. Multiply those numbers by all the agencies scattered across the country, and the larger picture starts to come into view. Now include the family members and friends that tend to follow the new residents to town.

The experiences and destinies of those who, often fleeing for their lives, never made it here weigh on Crosslin.

"It wasn't just St. Louis," she says. "There were 20 to 25 cities that had launched Syrian resettlement programs. It is a tragedy for the individuals, especially. It isn't just about St. Louis losing out on an opportunity, but the individuals, those 4,000 people who didn't make it to St. Louis in the last four years. What happened to them? If they're alive, how destitute are they right now? Are they the ones we see the pictures of — winter in the refugee camps in Syria and kids in sandals? They probably are.

"That's the tragedy to all this: that we could have helped 4,000 people and probably saved a fair number of lives while we were at it."

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