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Immigration – Then and Now

It’s been a while since I’ve written about immigration. Using RefugeeOne as my lens, I wrote several articles during the Trump years about the previous administration’s hostility to immigrants and refugees, and the consequences for Chicago and Rogers Park.

Anyone who knows anything about Rogers Park knows that the neighborhood is one of the most diverse in Chicago and, for that matter, in the United States. The neighborhood has also been – quite literally – a port of entry for generations of people who came to this country as new arrivals.

The Trump presidency was famous for its effort to implement a travel ban on certain mostly Muslim countries, its unsuccessful attempts to remove legal protections from Dreamers and to revoke the citizenship of people born in the United States to non-citizen parents.

Less well known was the highly successful effort of the Trump Administration to limit legal immigration with reductions in the number of Green Cards and growing limitations on the numbers of refugees allowed into the country with each passing year of his time in office.

In the last year of the Obama Administration, 110,000 refugees were approved for resettlement to the United States. In the first year of the Trump Administration, this number was cut to 45,000. By the end of the Trump Administration, just 15,000 refugees were approved for resettlement in the United States.

While RefugeeOne weathered this storm, many non-profit groups were forced to lay-off staff, cut salaries, or even close their doors due to lack of government funding and plummeting numbers of arrivals.

The collapse of immigration, refugee resettlement, and the entire infrastructure to support resettlement has left the country ill-equipped to deal with the immigrants and refugees who continued to find their way to this country, and whose numbers are now increasing under a friendlier Biden Administration. This was true before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and is even more true now after the Taliban has taken control.

But remember that old adage – when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That pretty much describes the MO at RefugeeOne right now and among the amazing staff at the organization who work so hard to better the lives of their clients.

Afghan resettlement is upon us and, after years of treading water, RefugeeOne is suddenly having to relearn how to move large groups of people into the American mainstream. This is never an easy process. But throw in a massive and sudden surge of people who have suffered tremendous trauma, often do not speak the language, have little familiarity with the culture and have had to flee their homeland with little more than the clothes on their backs, and you get some sense of what agencies like RefugeeOne are dealing with right now.

In the last three months, RefugeeOne welcomed 433 refugees, most of them from Afghanistan. That’s more than the total number of refugees they welcomed in the previous three fiscal years! This large group of Afghans joins hundreds of other refugees from all across the world who continue to view America as their last, best hope.

For Afghan refugees, the first stop for many were the military bases around the country that provided their first refuge in this county after the dramatic rescue operation that unfolded in August of last year, mostly in and around Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Some 13,000 of those Afghans ended up at Fort McCoy, an Army Base about 250 miles northwest of Chicago in a rural area of east-central Wisconsin.

RefugeeOne has sent some of their staff to military bases like Fort McCoy where refugees are being processed. This is the first step in a long process that will painstakingly assist them in building new lives in a new land. Resettlement agencies like RefugeeOne help new arrivals in so many ways – this includes finding them homes and apartments, getting them enrolled in English language classes, procuring needed services, helping them find employment and assisting in getting their children enrolled in school. In short, they help refugees do the million-and-one-things they must do to start the long and difficult process of acclimating to a new country that is radically different from anything they have previously known.

For Rogers Park, the friendlier immigrant and refugee policies of the Biden Administration, combined with the latest wave of refugees from Afghanistan will be, if anything, something of a “return to normal” for the neighborhood.

Rogers Park has always been one of the first places new arrivals from other countries land as they begin their lives in America. Why? Because Rogers Park is one of the few places where people from a wide range of cultures can feel at home and be accepted by their neighbors, many of whom were also immigrants and refugees, or are descendent from them.

Rogers Park and surrounding Chicago neighborhoods and suburban communities offer a combination of amenities that are critically important to people first coming to this country. These include reasonably priced housing, access to jobs and/or transportation to jobs, decent schools and a rich network of support organizations to help them on their journey.

Perhaps most importantly, Rogers Park and other similar areas don’t just tolerate newcomers – they welcome and even celebrate them. This is far from the norm in present-day America as anti-immigration sentiment has multiplied and amplified over the past number of years.

In many ways, Rogers Park is a safe-haven for new arrivals who feel more comfortable in an area of the city where no group dominates, and where so many groups have recreated some of the customs and comforts of the homelands they have left behind. This is critical to new arrivals who already feel overwhelmed with everything that is new. Having access to something that feels familiar can be a lifeline as they begin difficult adjustments and start to rebuild, quite often, from almost nothing.

But Rogers Park benefits as well. The waves and waves of past immigrant and refugee groups have keep the neighborhood vital and interesting, even as previous waves assimilate and move on. During the Trump Administration, these new arrivals were reduced to a tiny fraction of what the neighborhood had grown accustom to, with negative consequences for local schools, businesses and the general health and well-being of the neighborhood.

The influx of Afghans that is now underway, and a more typical cycling in of immigrants and refugees from around the globe, ensures that Rogers Park will remain the United Nations of Chicago and keep its reputation as one of the most polyglot neighborhoods anywhere in the United States. The new Afghan businesses and restaurants that will inevitably follow will give us all just one more reason to come to Rogers Park and explore its cultural diversity. Future waves of immigrant and refugee groups will ensure that the neighborhood is always changing and never dull.

Who knows? Perhaps one of today’s Afghan refugees will have a child who will grow up to lead an administration of his or her own? Stranger things have happened. Another “only in America” story for future generations to tell.




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