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Congolese refugees in Missoula welcome Biden plan to reverse Trump cuts

Congolese refugees in Missoula welcome Biden plan to reverse Trump cuts

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Safi Wakusolela's voice took on a preacher's cadence as she recounted the long, fraught journey away from her home country, the violence-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo.

She first lived in a destitute refugee camp in Tanzania before eventually making it to the United States.

Both a gospel preacher and singer, Wakusolela compared the difference in her life between the camp and Missoula as a transition from "death" to a "miracle resurrection."

"I have become human again," she said. "I feel like I'm now free, open. I live with my family."

Her transformation may become more common as the United States changes its policy toward immigrants. President Joe Biden has proposed allowing more than 10 times as many refugees fleeing violence to resettle here as former President Donald Trump did last year. 

After leaving the horrid conditions of the refugee camp, Wakusolela and her family knelt on the ground as soon as they arrived at the airport in Los Angeles in 2019, she said.

"We kneel on the ground, lifted hands in the air and pray to the Lord. Many person doesn't understand us," explained her husband Elongo Gabriel, who translated his wife's words for the Missoulian. "They were like, what is happening now? But we know why we do that. We were praying to God."

Such was the emotion of arriving in America after what they'd been through.

"If I was (still) in Africa, I cannot say I would be alive," Wakusolela said, speaking through her husband.

She remembers being weak from hunger in the camp, describing many days when they only had a little ball of cassava to eat.

"I would be dead," she said. "I couldn't stand for 10 minutes. I was on the bed all the time."

Wakusolela and Gabriel have now lived in Missoula for a year and a half, having been settled here as refugees by the International Rescue Committee and aided by a local nonprofit, Soft Landing Missoula. They have five children and are active church members in the community.

Gabriel worked as an artist at a gift store in Missoula before the pandemic hit. Now he works as a housekeeper at the Missoula YMCA and at the Missoula Alliance Church.

He speaks multiple languages and studied economic sciences and leadership at a university in the DRC. He hopes to find a night job so he can continue his studies and provide for his family. 

Wakusolela works in food service at St. Patrick Hospital. She learned to cook from her mother, and actually had a small restaurant before she came to the United States. One of her great joys now is sharing Congolese cuisine with Missoulians.

"My favorite meal to cook is my client's favorite meal," she said.

There are now about 20 Congolese families that have settled here in the Garden City. Missoula has a long history of resettling people fleeing violence around the world, including hundreds of Hmong refugees in the 1970s, some of whom (and their descendants) are now staples of the local farmers markets.

Safi and Elongo are just two faces of the refugee community in Missoula, the only city in Montana with an International Rescue Committee office.

"Since August of 2016, the IRC in Missoula has resettled 374 individuals, 33 of which arrived in 2020," explained Kit Stebbins, a caseworker at the Missoula IRC office. "The refugees resettled to Missoula have been primarily from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, other African countries, and East and South Asia."

Other refugees in Missoula include Iraqi and Syrian families who have started food trucks here.

The number of refugees in the Garden City may soon grow.

Change of administrations

President Biden issued an executive order in early February to drastically increase refugee admissions in the United States.

Administration officials recently announced a goal of allowing 62,500 people fleeing war, violence and persecution around the globe to come to America in fiscal year 2021. The administration had previously announced plans to allow as many as 125,000 in fiscal year 2022. That would be a huge increase over the 12,000 that came here in fiscal year 2020.

Trump had eviscerated the decades-old American refugee program, often framing refugees as taking the jobs of American citizens and posing crime risks.

Trump allocated a historically low 15,000 spots in 2020, way down from the 110,000-person limit set by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

"The refugee resettlement program was devastated by the previous administration," Stebbins said. "President Biden has committed to rebuilding the resettlement program and the IRC looks forward to an increase in the number of refugees that will be welcomed to the United States this year. Missoula has been overwhelmingly supportive of refugees resettled in the community and we see that through strong partnerships, committed volunteers and welcomed donations."

There's no way to tell how many people will arrive in Missoula this year or the coming years, but there's certainly no lack of people wanting to come here.

"There are 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and that number continues to grow," Stebbins said. "We welcome Biden’s annual admissions ceiling increase of 125,000 to the United States by FY22. About 55,000 will be welcomed in FY2021."

Safi Wakusolela said she knows many people in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo who would love to come to America, and the Biden administration's plan is welcome news.

"Many, many person," she said. "I can say all Congo. My family is so many person, many friends. Congolese would like to come here. I will praise the Lord when you accomplish bringing many immigrant refugees in the USA."

She's always thinking of those left behind, who are still in the refugee camp, she said.

The announcement by Biden was hailed by Soft Landing Missoula, which runs a variety of programs that help refugees get on their feet and become successful community members here.

"We are incredibly excited for the refugee ceiling to be raised and what this means not only for the humanitarian leadership our country can return to, but also what this means for our community right here in Missoula," executive director Mary Poole  explained.

"Families that have been waiting for reunification, individuals watching ongoing conflict affecting loved ones back home, and even U.S.-born folks that care about creating a safe and welcoming home for refugees in Missoula — many are breathing a collective sigh of relief for the future."

Political division

The Missoula IRC office was established in August of 2016 after being shuttered in the 1990s. Trump took office in January of 2017, and signed an executive order shortly thereafter that cut the number of refugees allowed in to the U.S. in half.

Also in 2017, the Montana Legislature passed a bill that would have banned Shariah law and other foreign laws from being used in courtrooms, even though Montana's Muslim population was less than 1% of the state's total population. Then-Governor Steve Bullock vetoed the bill.

Republican lawmakers in the Montana Legislature have repeatedly introduced bills to ban so-called "sanctuary cities" in the state. Immigration politics is divisive nationally, and it's no different in Montana. During debate of the sanctuary cities bill this year, the viewpoints expressed by supporters and detractors were polarized.

According to a report from Mara Silvers of the Associated Press, Missoula-based Rabbi Lauri Franklin testified at a hearing that the bill is driven by “white supremacy, bigotry and hatred.”

“This bill is specifically intended to isolate, intimidate and demonize both documented and undocumented immigrant populations by identifying them as other, unworthy of protection, citizenship and humane treatment,” Franklin said.

A supporter of the bill, Keith Kubista, of Stevensville, said sanctuary cities allow “harboring of criminals" and “enable illegal aliens to take jobs away from Montanans and U.S. citizens.”​

Montana's congressional delegation does not agree on refugee policy. Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale oppose Biden's executive order.

"The Biden administration has already shown that they are putting foreign lives over the lives of American citizens with its immigration policy during a pandemic," Rosendale said in a statement to the Missoulian. "They've doubled down on this policy by increasing the number of refugees by 733%, putting Americans at risk if we cannot properly process and vet these people."​

Daines also referred to safety and jobs in his statement to the Missoulian.

“The safety of Montanans and American citizens should always take precedence," Daines said. "Allowing more refugees into our country during a global pandemic is a public health issue and it is unfair to the millions of Americans who are struggling to find jobs. From opening our borders to killing the Keystone pipeline, President Biden's priorities are clearly not in order, and I urge him to reconsider.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said the entire system needs work.

"It's critical that the current process continues to be implemented safely, especially as we combat COVID-19, and work to address the underlying reasons that people flee their home countries," Tester told the Missoulian in a statement. "I'll continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken immigration system."​​

Economic impact

A 2020 study by Stanford University's Immigration Policy Lab and the Institute of Labor Economics looked at crime statistics in over 700 counties in the United States.

They found that, despite a 66% drop in refugee admittances in 2016 and 2017 during the Trump administration, there was "no discernible effect on violent or property crime rates." In other words, a drop in refugee numbers did not correlate to a drop in violent crime or property crime.

According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, immigrants that year made up only 2.3 percent of the total population of Missoula and four surrounding counties in 2016 (the latest year data was available). However, those 4,654 people contributed $219.9 million to the goods produced and services provided in the region, $19.3 million in federal taxes and $7 million in state and local taxes in 2016 alone.

That left them with $93.6 million in spending power, much of which they used on local businesses, according to the study's authors. That report also found that immigrants living in the Missoula region helped create or preserve 214 manufacturing jobs that otherwise would have vanished or moved elsewhere. The study stated that immigrants in the area are also much more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree or higher.​

Poole, with Soft Landing Missoula, is optimistic that the new federal policy will bring hope to more people like Elongo Gabriel, Safi Wakusolela and their children.

"This announcement is part of a trend toward broader immigration reform and rectifying some of the deeply harsh and inhumane policies of the previous administration when it comes to refugees, people and families seeking asylum, and immigrants in general," said. "While the rebuilding of this system won't happen overnight and there is still a large amount of work to be done, it is work that we are looking forward to."

Wakusolela cooked a Congolese meal for 150 people as part of a Soft Landing Program last week. Speaking in a quiet, mostly-empty room, the power and conviction in her voice could easily have entranced a crowded church.

"It was the miracle assistance of God, especially, that brought us to Missoula," she said. "For this moment I continue to pray. I walk for God."

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