A shift this week in President Donald Trump’s sweeping foreign travel order sets up Sacramento County to become one of the nation’s top destinations for people seeking refuge from war-torn nations for at least the next four months.
In the face of opposition and widespread confusion, the Trump administration has carved out a travel exemption for Iraqis and Afghans who have assisted the U.S. military during conflicts in those nations. The original executive order issued late last week restricted entry by all refugees for at least 120 days and barred visits by residents of seven predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days.
The policy recalibration will be deeply felt in Sacramento County, a primary destination for people awarded Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, because they helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The county has received roughly 3,800 Iraqis and Afghans with SIVs since 2008, by far the highest number of any county in California and more than the total in 47 states.
That Sacramento County number is on the rise, too. Nearly 2,000 SIV holders resettled in the county during the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, accounting for roughly half of the state’s total special visa resettlements, according to California data. Another 56 special visa holders have resettled in Yolo County and 29 in Placer County since the program started.
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A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked Trump’s ban on travelers and immigrants from the seven Muslim nations after Washington state and Minnesota went to court to argue for a nationwide hold on the executive order, which has launched legal battles across the country.
But for now, the broader refugee restrictions remain in place, meaning practically the only people granted asylum from dangerous nations for at least the next four months will be those carrying SIVs.
“It means that out of the entire nation, if there’s a city that’s going to get the largest number of refugees (this year), it’s going to be Sacramento,” said Kirt Lewis, the Sacramento office director for World Relief, a major refugee resettlement agency. “That’s a pretty amazing story.”
Many refugees are drawn to the Sacramento region because of its relatively modest cost of living and access to schools, jobs and services provided to newcomers.
A father, mother and their four children from Afghanistan carrying special visas landed at Sacramento International Airport on Thursday evening, Lewis said. His agency – one of four resettlement organizations operating in Sacramento – is scheduled to process 64 Afghan visa holders in February.
Thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have sought refuge in the United States since 2008 under the Special Immigrant Visa program, granted to translators, advisers and others who helped U.S. military and government forces in those nations. Trump’s order initially sparked fear among immigrant groups and resettlement agencies that special visa holders would be blocked from entering the United States, leaving those men, women and children vulnerable to reprisal for aiding U.S. forces.
The fear focused largely on Iraq, one of the seven nations targeted by Trump’s 90-day travel ban, in addition to Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But a U.S. State Department official told The Sacramento Bee on Thursday in a statement that the federal government “has determined that it is in the national interest to allow Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa holders to continue to travel to the United States.” The official added that “Iraqis who have already received valid Special Immigrant Visas may use them to travel to the United States, and our embassies and consulates overseas will continue to process and issue SIVs to applicants who are otherwise qualified.”
While there was less fear that Afghans would be impacted by the order – Afghanistan is not on the list of banned nations in Trump’s order – there was still concern that SIV holders from that country would also be blocked from entering the United States under Trump’s moratorium on admitting refugees. While not technically considered refugees, SIV holders seek to flee their home countries for many of the same reasons people become refugees.
The Trump administration faced pressure this week from veterans and GOP lawmakers to permit travel to the United States for those carrying SIVs.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and other lawmakers sent the White House a letter urging the administration to allow SIV holders to enter the United States. Hunter is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We made a promise to the men and women who served alongside us on the battlefield, and we must uphold that promise to leave no man behind,” Hunter and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said in a joint news statement released with the letter.
Immigrant and refugee groups hope the flow of special visa holders from Iraq and Afghanistan will continue. However, there were some early problems this week when an Iraqi man traveling with an SIV was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and an Afghan holding an SIV was detained at San Francisco International Airport.
“We’ll be watching to see how this works in practice,” said Matthew Soerens, a spokesman for World Relief’s headquarters in Washington.
Others said the sudden change in policy illustrated the muddled process with which Trump’s executive order was implemented.
David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a major refugee aid agency, said in a statement that the change “is both a welcome step forward and further evidence that (last week’s) executive order was drawn up in haste and needs further urgent review.”