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Refugee Groups In Austin Navigate Resettlement Program's Uncertain Future

Stephanie Tacy for KUT
Hundreds attend an interfaith community vigil for refugees at First English Lutheran Church on Jan. 30. Three days earlier, President Trump signed an executive order barring refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

The federal refugee resettlement program has faced a lot of uncertainties in the past several weeks, and folks who work with refugees here in Austin say it’s making their work more complicated than usual.

The Trump administration’s second iteration of its travel ban was stopped several days ago from going into effect. However, officials have vowed to continue to defend the ban in court.

Simone Talma Flowers, the executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, says this uncertainty has put her group in an uncomfortable position.

For now, she says, the organization is telling refugees not to travel.

“Which is really hard because they are here legally, and we want them to roam free,” Flowers says. “But at the same time [we want] to let them know what their rights are, so that they could be informed, because many of them have come from nations where they have had no rights.”

Interfaith Action of Central Texas teaches English to refugees here in Austin. It also provides cultural information. But mostly, Flowers says, it is a resource. She says it answers questions about what refugees should expect here.

“This is the first time, really, that we have been in a situation where it’s like, ‘Well we don’t know,’” she says. “There is such uncertainty. ... We are in a different space right now that we have never experienced before.”

Aaron Rippenkroeger, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, says he’s concerned a lot of families are going to be left behind in the coming year, too. He says, so far, the number of arrivals in Texas has been shrinking.   

“They have slowed down dramatically,” he says. “And so it’s just not clear to us exactly how many are going to come this year. We know that the pace has slowed down quite a bit, and we assume that will be the case for the rest of the year. But we don’t know yet if there will be a full stop for a portion of the year. And again, we hope that that won’t occur, just given the very detrimental impacts that will have on the lives of real people.”

Rippenkroeger says Texas is expected to resettle roughly half the people it did last year, which he says is unfortunate considering the worldwide refugee crisis.

In Texas, many of the refugees who come here are reuniting with family, he says.

Rippenkroeger and Flowers say there's good news in that the local community has stepped up since the travel bans were announced.

“Each time one of these executive orders has been issued, we have hundreds of volunteer requests,” Rippenkroeger says. “So, we are extremely grateful, and the people of the United States, the people of Texas, have so much to be proud of.”

Texas typically resettles more refugees than most states. Last year, state officials withdrew from the federal resettlement program over a dispute with the Obama administration.

Since then, groups -- including Refugee Services of Texas -- have taken over the program in the state.

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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