Nada Al-Rubaye didn’t consider leaving her home in Baghdad when the violence escalated in Iraq in 2011, even after her cousin was killed.
She stayed without her sister, who fled Iraq when her husband, Al-Rubaye’s brother-in-law, was kidnapped and murdered by a sectarian group. As the fighting worsened, she began praying to God that her children would return safely from school each day, and she eventually pulled them out of education entirely.
Then, her youngest son disappeared, and within days, his body was found in a nearby river. With one son left, she escaped to Turkey, where the pair would live as refugees for two years, waiting for a resolution.
Finally in 2013, Al-Rubaye and her son were resettled to the United States. She joined her sister in Phoenix, where Al-Rubaye has rebuilt her life as an artist and entrepreneur, and where she knows her child is safe. She’s worried others won’t get the chance to do the same.
By the end of this month, the Trump administration must decide on the number of refugees the United States will accept into the country in the coming year — some reports suggest that number, which has steadily decreased during the administration’s tenure, will be as low as zero.
In the same time frame, Al-Rubaye will have registered to vote — she officially became a citizen of the United States on August 20.
The Iraqi native is just one Arizona resident amid a number of business owners, elected officials, and local humanitarian advocates who are concerned about the welfare of the state should the Trump administration prevail in setting yet another historically low quota for refugee resettlement.
“The plight of refugees is an issue that is close to my heart," said State Representative Tony Rivero of Peoria, a Republican who joined other Arizona elected officials this week in signing the "Welcoming Refugees 2020" letter urging the federal government to reverse course. “I signed onto the [letter] to help demonstrate the wide range of leaders from across the country that support welcoming refugees.”
Before the end of the fiscal year, each administration is tasked with setting the maximum number of refugees it will allow into the country in the next year. This process, known as the “Presidential Determination,” was signed into law with the passage of the bipartisan Refugee Act of 1980, which codified the United States’ commitment to providing refuge for displaced people unable to return to their home countries following violence or persecution.
Under the Trump administration, the maximum number has plummeted sharply. President Trump has set record-low ceilings for refugee admissions, and the number of refugees actually admitted has been far fewer each year of the sitting President's tenure.
In the federal government's fiscal year 2018, which began October 1, 2017, the refugee ceiling was set at 45,000, and about half that number of refugees were ultimately accepted into the nation, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of State Department data. In 2019, President Trump set the determination number at 30,000 — the lowest in refugee resettlement history. In July, Politico reported that Trump administration officials were considering setting the coming year's number as low as zero.
The decreased numbers of refugees admitted are consistent with Trump's promises during his presidential campaign, when he emphasized that the United States was not doing enough to vet refugees accepted into the country. Pew Research data shows that upon taking office in 2017, Trump launched several measures that resulted in 57,000 refugees being admitted into the country, despite the Obama administration's cap for that year of 110,000.
Soon after, Trump suspended the admittance of refugees for 120 days and urged his administration to increase the vetting of refugees, resulting in slower resettlement processes and fewer overall admittances. In October 2017, the administration de-prioritized refugee admissions from 11 countries it deemed to be a "high security risk." Security remains the Trump administration's primary justification for barring future refugee admissions. During a key meeting of security officials on refugee admissions this past July, Trump's representatives in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau named ongoing security concerns in their argument for a lower refugee cap, according to Politico.
At the same time, there are more refugees now than any time in history since World War II, with an estimated 44,000 people displaced from their countries each day. Local advocates in the Valley argue that turning away refugees, who differ from asylum-seekers in that they’ve already been found to have a legitimate claim of persecution that prevents them from returning to their home country, harms not only displaced persons around the world, but also the Arizona community.
“Refugees contribute to Phoenix and Arizona in a lot of ways,” said Stanford Prescott, spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that aids refugee resettlement in the Valley. “Many of them are business owners, just like Nada.”
Al-Rubaye currently sells her artwork at farmers' markets and art fairs throughout the city, supporting herself while she studies to become an art teacher. According to Stanford, this is common — through the organization’s micro-enterprise program, over 200 businesses in the Phoenix area have been founded by refugees.
Eighty-four percent of refugees resettled into the United States are self-sufficient within six months, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which means they've achieved employment and are fully able to support themselves financially. And because refugees admitted into the United States have a clear path to citizenship, they often stay in the communities in which they're resettled. Their presence in the Arizona community has led locally elected officials like Rivero to reach out to the Trump administration on behalf of refugees ahead of the coming 2020 ceiling decision.
Nationally, a group of over 380 state and locally elected leaders have signed the Welcoming Refugees 2020 letter to show their support for restoring the number of refugees that could be resettled in the United States to its historically accepted quota. Arizona is the state with the second-highest number of signatories — the letter was signed by 36 elected officials in Arizona, including Rivero and several Democratic lawmakers, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, and nine school board members.
The letter asks the Trump administration to allow for the resettlement of 95,000 refugees — a number that reflects the annual average of the refugee ceiling from the administrations of Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — in the upcoming fiscal year.
“In the midst of the worst global migration crisis in modern history, over the past couple years the Trump administration has callously turned its back on precedent and abandoned America’s promise,” said Representative Athena Salman, a Democrat from Tempe who currently serves as the Minority Whip of the Arizona House of Representatives. "I’m proud to call many refugees in Arizona my dear friends and constituents."
Al-Rubaye, when asked about the possibility of Trump lowering refugee admittances, furrowed her brows. She began to talk about her experience in Turkey waiting for the day when she and her son would be resettled to a new home country.
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"When people apply to be a refugee, they have hope. We waited for the news [of being able to come to America]. We was worried, we cried. Because when we are refugee, we don't have enough money to leave, to rent home, or enough money for eating food," Al-Rubaye said, remembering that she eventually sold the jewelry she'd brought with her to pay their rent. "I waited for two years in Turkey without money, without job. It's very hard time.
"This is why we came to America, for safety, and for people supporting us. It's not an easy choice to leave your country," Al-Rubaye said. "But refugee people succeed in Arizona, because people from Arizona support them."
Prior to the final presidential determination announcement, the executive branch must consult with the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. But with seven days left in the month, the Trump administration has yet to meet with Congress, which local advocates say is consistent with the administration’s timeline in previous years.
The Trump administration will need to determine a final resettlement number a week from today.