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For Ohioans, The Future Of Refugee Resettlement Is At Stake This Election

Semere Tesfatsion has been waiting for years to be reuinited with his wife Helen and daughters Yosan and Sara who are still in Sudan.
Courtesy of Semere Tesfatsion
Semere Tesfatsion has been waiting for years to be reuinited with his wife Helen and daughters Yosan and Sara who are still in Sudan.

Refugee resettlement has fallen to historic lows in the United States. The country has gone from sheltering 95,000 people fleeing persecution or war each year, to just 15,000 under the Trump administration. Advocates and refugees are hoping voters consider the issue when going to the polls.

Columbus is home to more than 16,000 resettled refugees, including the second largest Somali population in the country. The largest is in Minnesota, where President Donald Trump held a recent rally.

“Refugees coming from the most dangerous places in the world, including Yemen, Syria and your favorite country, Somalia,” Trump said as the audience booed. “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp, and he said that, overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools and inundating your hospitals.”

Despite Trump’s claims, here in Central Ohio more than 800 refugee-owned businesses employ 4,000 workers, with refugees helping create more than 20,000 jobs. So refugee resettlement is an issue close to the hearts of many Franklin County residents.

“Because of the demographics in Columbus, there are more Somalis, and that seems to be a group that this administration has ground to a halt in terms of resettlement,” says Angie Plummer of the local resettlement agency Community Refugee and Immigration Services.

Plummer says campaigning on refugee resettlement didn’t really exist before this election.

“It was kind of not necessary, because both parties were very supportive of having a very robust program,” Plummer says.

But this year is different from previous elections, between Trump’s comments at rallies and the dwindling refugee resettlement numbers. Refugees themselves don’t have as much of a voice to fight back, they can’t vote until they’ve been in the U.S. for 5 years and become a naturalized citizen.

A first-of-its-kind group called Voice For Refuge was created to advance refugee policies at the national, state and local levels. 

“There’s a lot of conversation more broadly about immigration, but refugee resettlement and refugee issues aren’t really being discussed,” says political director Mustafa Jumale.

Jumale says refugees can still get involved this election season by door knocking, volunteering and encouraging family and friends to vote.

“The experience of refugees fleeing persecution and a government that was really harming them I think contributes to their urge and wanting to engage in the civic process because they were historically denied,” he says.

Voice for Refuge is hoping the result of their efforts is an expansion on the number of refugees the U.S. accepts each year. President Trump set that cap at 15,000 people for 2021—a historic low since the program was unanimously passed into law in 1980.

Locally, members of the Franklin County Republican Party are caught between the administration’s policies and representing a constituency of refugees and immigrants.

Luis Gil is a Republican running for Franklin County Commissioner. He feels politicians, no matter their party, should think about the human cost of these decisions.

“For us refugees, for us immigrants, family is the most important thing we have because it’s part of our culture,” Gil says. “To be divided, to be broken up, it is something that affects us a great deal.”

An immigrant himself from Venezuela, Gill says separating families who came here seeking refuge is not part of the country’s ideals.

In contrast to the Trump administration, the campaign of Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden says if elected, he will increase the refugee resettlement cap to 125,000 people.

Biden even held a unique refugee-specific rally, where Columbus resident Semere Tesfatsion shared his story. Tesfatsion was resettled in the United States just before the 2016 election, but his wife and his daughters are still in a refugee camp in Sudan.

Over the last four years, Tesfatsion and thousands of other refugees across the country have watched as the resettlement cap fell and the odds of being reunited with their family members dwindled.

“I cannot explain the feeling, you know?” Tesfatsion says. “It’s very hard. But I miss them very much.”

Tesfatsion says he has hope that this election could bring them closer to reunification.