New restrictions may prevent refugees from relocating in Kansas

Garden City — Rohingya refugees have made southwest Kansas home, but now a pipeline for family reunification could get cut off.

Myanmar is one of the latest countries where refugees face a new ban on immigrant visas. The country’s Rohingya Muslim minorities have been fleeing genocide since 2015.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump announced a new list of six countries subject to travel restrictions.

It’s yet another setback for refugee resettlement in the Great Plains, where the U.S. refugee program has permitted immigrants to work and make rural Kansas home for the last four decades.

The federal government’s decision is also at odds with support from state and local government for refugee resettlement in the region.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf said late last month that immigration visas for Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan now face travel restrictions.

“Because each of these countries have deficiencies in sharing terrorist, criminal or identity information, it is likely that information reflecting that a visa applicant is a threat may not be available at the time the visa or entry is approved,” Wolf said in a news release.

For Tanzania and Sudan, travel restrictions have been imposed on diversity visas granted to people from countries that have low immigration rates to the U.S.

Matt Allen, the city manager of Garden City, said refugees are part of the local economy.

“The primary employer in Finney County (Tyson) is able to operate their beef manufacturing plant at an efficient level when fully staffed,” Allen said in an email. “For nearly 40 years, the employment need has been met at that plant in large part because of the willing and available workforce that has come through the refugee system.”

In December, Garden City, Dodge City and Gov. Laura Kelly sent letters to Trump in response to an executive order that required cities and states to approve the resettlement of refugees.

Since then, a federal judge in Maryland has blocked Trump’s executive order.

Debbie Snapp, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said it was unclear how the newest restrictions would affect family reunifications in southwest Kansas. But some families have been waiting to be reunified since restrictions were announced in 2017.

“Some of (a) family got in prior to the ban of Somalia,” Snapp said. “And then some of the family members didn’t make it into the country before the ban, and so they’re separated.”

Moreover, cuts to the number of refugees allowed in the U.S. fell again in 2020 — a maximum of 18,000 people. The Pew Research Center says “the number of refugees worldwide has reached the highest levels since World War II.”

Snapp said reducing the number of refugees has an economic impact on the area. When a refugee arrives, the resettlement agency helps new arrivals with job placement and paperwork within the first 90 days.

“We have more than 90% of our refugees that are working and self-sufficient by the end of their 90 days,” she said. “There are jobs that are open and available that these folks can and want to work.”

Saleh Mohammed left Myanmar in 2015. He lives in Garden City with his wife and two boys. He’s going through the process to become a U.S. citizen.

“I hope one day when I get citizen(ship) I’ll try to bring my family here because right now they are in (a) refugee camp,” he said.

Mohammed’s family is in Bangladesh. He said they wanted to go back to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, someday, but he planned to stay in Kansas.

“I love America,” Mohammed said. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

— Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service.

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