Refugee Nonprofit in Arkansas Mulls Its Path under the New Administration

November 27, 2016; Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Speaking to the Arkansas Gazette, Emily Linn, director of resettlement at the nonprofit group Canopy Northwest Arkansas, believes it “has become bigger than just a service organization. There’s really kind of the makings of a movement here.” As she says this, she points to dozens of resident volunteers as well as to the relationships the group has with local schools, employers, and law enforcement.

Yet, “the next president could limit or completely block the nonprofit group [that] plans to help about 100 refugees from around the world resettle in the area next year.” Nevertheless, Canopy remains intent on continuing to add to the global support given to millions of people living in refugee camps around the world, fleeing violence and persecution.

Canopy has teamed up with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS (Lutheran) is one of various national nonprofits that work with the federal government to resettle refugees. Northwest Arkansas has recently become one of Lutheran’s 50 nationwide resettlement sites. Nina Zelic, Director of Lutheran’s refugee services, praises the excitement and welcoming atmosphere they have experienced in Arkansas. She notes the uptick of volunteers in spite of rhetoric about how risky and dangerous refugees are. Clint Schnekloth, chair of Canopy’s board, witnessed at least 100 people cramming into one of the rooms at the church in Fayetteville where he is pastor. These people were a diverse array of optimistic volunteers supporting Canopy. They ranged from teenagers to seniors and included Arabic- and French-speaking university students who could communicate with non-English-speaking refugees. One family expected to arrive before the end of the year is from Iraq, while the other is “fleeing two decades of war in Central Africa.”

Canopy intends to stand up to Trump’s expected efforts to curtail the inflow of refugees to the U.S. Many support Trump’s proposal due to growing instability brought to surface through terror attacks both in the U.S. and abroad. Concerns and worries about this instability persist despite reports meant to promote calmness and offer a more humanitarian angle from which to consider this exacerbating, tragic global crisis. However, the Arkansas Gazette article reminds us of a certain political reality that should also be considered. As Stephen Legomsky, law professor emeritus at Washington University, St. Louis and expert on immigration law and policy says, “The president has fairly complete power over how many refugees can come and from where.” While federal law would require him to consult with Congress, “Ultimately, it is his decision, and his decision alone.” Legomsky says:

The country has taken at least 20,000 refugees or so per year for at least the past four decades, but Trump could conceivably shut the door completely…and also may bar any immigrant group deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Despite this, Legomsky reminds us that no president has ever used that power against people from an entire religion, such as Islam. Indeed, “doing so would raise constitutional questions over the document’s religious freedom guarantees.” This factor may gear the issue more toward better vetting mechanisms when it comes to accepting refugees into the country, as Trump himself indicated in his initial statement asking for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The process to screen refugee applicants for known criminal or terror links typically takes years. The article cites Arkansas officials communicating concerns about the process to Secretary of State John Kerry. The spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) stated that he is “hopeful (Trump) will work with the FBI and the State Department to ensure the vetting process is air tight before refugees enter the United States.”

Meanwhile, hopeful energy is in the air in Northwest Arkansas. Canopy’s work continues—at least until Trump is sworn in as president. According to Zelic, “It’s a long tradition that America has of welcoming the stranger, and we hope to see a continuing commitment to uphold those values…it would be really sad to see such a great tradition just stopped altogether.”—Noreen Ohlrich