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The Immigration Debate Rages On

 

Among Chicago’s thriving refugee populations are the Rohingya. Many acclimate to US culture through soccer

Last year, the Rogers Park Builder ran a series of three articles about immigration, refugee resettlement and Rogers Park. Rogers Park is a community of immigrants. Although this is generally true of the entire country, it is especially true of Rogers Park. Unlike much of the rest of the country, many of the immigrants and refugees living in Rogers Park are recent arrivals, not the descendants of long-ago ancestors who came through Ellis Island.

The Rogers Park community remains one of the most diverse in the city, and takes much of its identity from the incredible variety of the people who call the neighborhood home. Any changes in immigration or refugee resettlement are going to be felt more acutely in Rogers Park than almost anywhere else in the city or suburbs.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election in no small measure due to his hostility toward immigrants and refugees. This hostility has been on plain view since he took office. If anything, the President’s antipathy toward immigrants and refugees has grown more pronounced over his nearly two years in office. After a long battle through the lower courts, the Trump Administration emerged victorious in a battle with immigrant advocates when it beat back a series of lower court rulings against its travel ban. The Supreme Court finally ruled in Trump’s favor in a five-to-four decision this past June 26th.

Given the dramatic changes in attitude toward immigrants – certainly within the Trump Administration, but more broadly across the country – it makes sense to take another look at recent trends in immigration and refugee policies, and to measure the impacts these changes are having on the Rogers Park community.

RefugeeOne has seen a dramatic decline in refugee resettlement activity.

The best local source of information on refugees and immigration is RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. Once again, I am indebted to Jims Porter, Policy and Communications Coordinator at the agency. We spoke in September.

According to Jims, RefugeeOne has seen a dramatic decline in refugee resettlement activity. Many other agencies, both locally and nationally, have shut down entirely due to the dramatic reduction in refugees being allowed to enter the country.

As recently as 2016, RefugeeOne resettled 844 people, the highest number in the agency’s history. The agency typically keeps tab of refugees by their fiscal year calendar which starts on July 1 and ends on June 30. The agency resettled 575 people in FY 2016, 728 people in FY 2017, but just 175 people in FY 2018, not even close to the 475 people the agency thought they would resettle during the period.

This is not because the agency did not anticipate that the Trump Administration would reduce the number of refugees allowed to enter the country. They did. But they failed to anticipate how dramatic those reduction would be, or how difficult the new administration would make it for refugees to complete their journeys to this country.

About 85,000 refugees were allowed to enter the country during the last year of President Obama’s time in office. In September of 2017, President Trump announced that he would lower the ceiling for refugee resettlement to 45,000 people in 2018, down from the Obama Administration's cap of 110,000. This figure was far lower than at any time under any president during the past three decades. But even this number turned out to be overly optimistic as refugee resettlement has slowed to a crawl.

Just this past September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the new number of refugees allowed to enter the country in 2019 would be even lower – just 30,000. It remains to be seen how many people are actually allowed in since the number of refugees entering the country continues to be below the already low caps.

Chad Adams, Principal of Sullivan High School, has a particularly interesting perspective on the immigration/refugee situation in Rogers Park. RPBG knows Principal Adams well, having worked with him over the past few years on a number of school improvement projects and educational initiatives at his innovative and dynamic school. Since Chad became Principal, Sullivan has seen consistent increases in enrollment and consistent improvement in the quality of education. This turn-around seemed like nothing short of a miracle after the school suffered years of neglect and declining attendance.

A huge driver of the school’s recent improvements was its success in welcoming and educating the many immigrant and refugee children who came to Chicago with their families from all across the world. Sullivan was so successful in its efforts with these kids that Chicago Magazine wrote an entire exposé on the subject in its June 2017 edition. The article is both fascinating and inspiring.

Recent estimates put the number of refugees across the globe at more than 25 million people, of which about half are children.

By the time the article was written, Sullivan already had the city’s largest number of refugee students of any high school in the CPS system. According to Chad, the school experienced consistent enrollment increases – much of it due to immigrant and refugee enrollees – through the 2017-2018 school year when enrollment peaked at about 750 kids. Chad says that about 150 immigrant and refugee children came to Sullivan High School during the two school years between the summer of 2016 and the summer of 2018.

But the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year saw a very different trend take hold. After two years of incoming freshmen classes at about 200 students per class, the 2018-2019 freshman enrollment was closer to 130 or 140 kids. While Chad will tell you that this drop in enrollment cannot be blamed solely on changes in immigration and refugee policies, it is also true that these changes play a major role in this decline.

On a more personal level, Chad will tell you that the change in immigration and refugee policies at the national level have made his already challenging job that much more difficult. Chad states the obvious when he says that integrating and educating children from across the world – particularly those kids who suffered trauma and deprivation before getting to the United States – was never easy. Now, however, it’s much harder.

This is due to the greater stresses and strains many families are feeling about their own government including fear of ICE raids and deportations. Chad says that some of his kids are from refugee families who were able to get part of the family to the United States before President Trump was elected, but who have been unable to bring other family members here since he took office. These traumas are on top of the many difficulties these kids already face as they try to adapt to a new language, culture and way of life.

As Chicago’s primary port of entry, Rogers Park will feel these effects more immediately and more severely than anywhere else in the city.

At this point, no one knows if the reductions in refugee resettlement, and the greater restrictions placed on immigrants generally, is the new normal or just a temporary phenomenon. Much will depend on the outcome of future elections. The midterm results may be an indication of changing national sentiments about immigration and other current issues.

Still, with President Trump firmly in control of the Republican Party, and with continued Republican control of the Senate after the midterm elections, refugee resettlement and immigration will be at greatly reduced rates from previous years. This is at a time when the need is greater that it has ever been with more refugees worldwide than at any previous point in history. Recent estimates put the number of refugees across the globe at more than 25 million people, of which about half are children.

As Chicago’s primary port of entry, Rogers Park will feel these effects more immediately and more severely than anywhere else in the city. This can be expected to impact all aspects of life, from enrollment at local schools, to business activity along the commercial streets, to the very character of the Rogers Park community. We can also expect these impacts to compound over time. So far, these changes have been incremental. But, the longer these policies remain in place, the more profound the impacts will, and not just in Rogers Park.

Chad Adams said it best. Rogers Park is one of just a handful of neighborhoods in the entire country that has welcomed such a diverse influx of people from around the globe year after year. If we lose that in Rogers Park, we lose something very special. And it will not just be Rogers Park that suffers for this loss.

 

 

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