WASHINGTON ― On a hot D.C. summer day on Tuesday, seven refugees from Texas made their way to the office of their home state senator, Ted Cruz, to do what one does in the nation’s capital: lobby.
They gathered near a stairwell in the Russell Senate Office Building to run through their talking points. Two of them would share their personal stories of coming to the U.S. Another two would ask the senator, through the staffer they were meeting, to support admitting at least 75,000 refugees next year and to help fund aid for them in the U.S. and abroad.
They waited calmly at his office as visitors came and went. After a few minutes, a legislative assistant ushered them into the marble-floored hallway outside, explaining that a meeting room was occupied. They talked for about 25 minutes just outside the office door. The staffer didn’t take notes.
Despite it all, they ended up pleased with how the meeting went. Later, in a huddle farther down the hall, they remarked on how the aide seemed knowledgeable about refugee issues and compassionate and interested in what they had to say. One of the refugee agency staffers who accompanied them ran through a questionnaire.
How would they rank the Cruz staff member’s reactions?
A four out of five, most said.
Did she seem receptive to their issues?
Should they cultivate a relationship with the office?
The former refugees had come to Washington for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Leadership Academy, where they had spent the last few days training and strategizing on how to help new arrivals and convince politicians that it was right and humane to do the same. It was the fifth year of the program, with 48 former refugees from 17 states participating.
This year is different from the last four. Now they are operating in the age of Donald Trump, who wants to cut the number of refugees to be resettled in the U.S. and bar them from entry for at least four months. The Texas advocates are facing an anti-refugee wave at the state level that Trump tapped into nationally. Texas took in the second-highest number of refugees of any state in fiscal year 2016, but its Republican leadership has echoed the president’s approach, last year taking the extreme move of dropping out of the resettlement program, making it the largest state to do so. Gov. Greg Abbott has also tried to bar Syrian refugees from the state entirely. And while Republican officials in Texas can’t legally keep refugees out, they’ve done their best to say they are unwelcome.
“Our state is not friendly toward refugees and immigrants,” said Justin Nsenga, a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and now executive director of Partners for Refugee Empowerment. “[But] we are not a burden to the state of Texas. We are not a liability. We are a contributing community, a contributing population. One voice will not make any difference in Austin unless we are together.”
Despite the open hostility that is exhibited by their state ― or perhaps because of it ― refugee advocates feel an intense urgency to change minds. That includes Cruz, who supported measures to bar certain groups of refugees and backed Trump’s travel ban, which is now blocked in the courts. The former refugees knew that having a positive reception from congressional staffers wouldn’t change much, if anything. But they felt that if they met the staff in person, they could work to maintain and grow relationships within the state. After visiting Cruz’s Washington office, Nsenga suggested that they reach out to Cruz’s offices in Texas as soon as possible to request meetings, since they take some time to schedule.
They hoped for the same thing at their meeting with a staffer for Sen. John Cornyn, another Texas Republican, set for an hour later. First they walked to the Capitol, where Cornyn has an office, with a quick stop for pictures, and then in line for security ― where a police officer jokingly asked them if, as Texans, they were armed ― and then back to the Senate office buildings, where the meeting had been moved to.
At the Cornyn meeting, they were seated in a room and, this time, the staff member took notes. The former refugees didn’t want to get too political, so they didn’t bring up Trump or his executive orders. They also felt they didn’t need to: It was clear they disagreed with the orders when they asked that the U.S. admit more refugees than he wanted.
This time they decided to also ask what they could do to win the senator over. They said the Cornyn staffer told them that his office gets a lot of calls expressing concerns about refugee resettlement and hardly any from people who support refugees.
“She said, ‘You can help by educating fellow Texans about refugees,’” Emmanuel Sebagabo, a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said afterward.
It was a tangible bit of information that the former refugees felt could serve them well. They believe many Texans actually do support refugee resettlement, particularly now that it’s under threat. After Trump’s executive order, the number of people who wanted to volunteer to help refugees shot up so much that some groups stopped accepting new volunteers. They had too many to train, plus, the number of refugees coming into Texas had dropped even as relevant portions of the orders were blocked by the courts. About 1,100 refugees resettled in Texas from February to the end of May, down from about 3,000 from last October to the end of January, when Trump took office.
“There’s kind of a gap between state leaders and the community itself,” said Basel Mousslly, a former refugee from Syria who now works in Houston as a resettlement supervisor at Refugee Services of Texas.
Churches, community groups, Islamic associations and schools have also offered their help to refugees in the wake of the orders. So the former refugees knew they had support in Texas and the country at large. There are people who have shown up at rallies and offered to help newly arrived refugees settle in.
But politicians, these groups discovered, don’t necessarily register that. They don’t base their policy positions on whether constituents set up apartments for people resettling in their states, and they haven’t been universally moved by protests against Trump’s executive orders. Politicians care about getting elected and reelected; they care about doing what their constituents call on them (literally and figuratively) to do.
It’s a basic principle of advocacy, but it can get lost when activists are focused on more immediate matters, like getting people resettled in a new country. Now up against Trump, Abbott, Cruz, Cornyn and other Republicans, the refugee advocates got a reminder that they can’t forget about the politics. They need to convince more fellow Texans that refugee resettlement is a good thing, but that requires combating messages from politicians who spread fear that refugees can be dangerous. They need to convince those who support refugees to not just offer places to stay, warm meals and social services. They need them to call politicians’ offices and show up at town halls.
The former refugees know that making Trump, Cruz or Abbott suddenly support broader refugee resettlement would be a Herculean task, but perhaps they can persuade them to calm down their rhetoric.
On Tuesday, they got a chance. Two members of the Trump administration showed up at an event for the academy, even though the president has discussed refugee resettlement almost solely as a potential avenue for terrorists to enter the country and twice attempted to temporarily halt it entirely. The speakers, from the State Department and the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, referenced the need to keep communities safe. But they also spoke about refugees as an asset to the U.S. ― the message advocates at the academy hoped to get across.
“It’s really good to be here,” Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who was appointed under Trump, told the LIRS academy participants during a breakfast briefing that morning. “I thank you. It’s a chance for me to meet the people who really, really give our program a heart and soul and a human face.”