Immigration order hits home across NY

ALBANY -- Mohammed Alhomsi expected his wife to join him in New Rochelle later this month after a grueling process of getting a visa from their home in Lebanon.
 
They even planned to have a second wedding in New York to celebrate their reunion after he married his Syrian wife in Lebanon last May.
 
“Her flight is booked for the 20th,” he said. “Our wedding is booked for the 24th. The honeymoon was booked for the 25th. I moved to New Rochelle to a bigger house. I bought all this furniture thinking she’s going to live with me. We were going to go to Jamaica.”
 
But their plans are on hold after President Trump's immigration order Jan. 27 blocked immigrants and refugees from seven foreign countries with Muslim majorities from coming in the U.S.
 
Alhomsi's story is similar to ones across New York because the state has the second largest immigrant population in the nation and the country's third largest refugee population, a review of state and federal records by the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau found.
 
And the problems created by the order are playing out largely in the New York City suburbs and upstate, which has by far the largest refugee community in New York.
Also, Westchester County has the largest percentage of its population who are not U.S. citizens in the state outside New York City, Census Bureau data from 2015 showed.
 
Non-citizens made up nearly 13 percent of the county's population, about 122,000 people, and there was a similar percentage of naturalized citizens. In Rockland, 9 percent of the population were foreign born.
 
"As New Yorkers, we live with the Statue of Liberty in our harbor and the essence of the Statue of Liberty lives in our hearts," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Jan. 29.
 
Mohammed Alhomsi, 26, of New Rochelle, is an American citizen, married to a woman in Syria. Alhomsi, photographed Feb. 2, 2017, says that his wife, Sarah Melli, 22, was approved to travel to the United States, where the two were to have a second wedding, after marrying in Jordan last year. Those plans came to a halt after President Trump's executive order banning #immigration from Syria. Sarah is now stuck in Damascus, and their plans are in limbo while Mohammed works to get his her to this country.  (Photo: Seth Harrison/The Journal News)
Confusion abounds
Trump and his supporters have stressed that the order, now largely on hold in the courts, will make the country safer from potential terrorism.
In a statement Jan. 29, Trump said the order is similar to one President Obama issued in 2011 to ban visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.
 
“America is a proud nation of immigrants and we will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression, but we will do so while protecting our own citizens and border," Trump's statement said.
In interviews across New York with people and organizations affected by the order, they described fear of the future and feelings of despair about being separate from loved ones, wondering when the issue would be resolved.
 
On Wednesday night in Rochester, Naqeebullah Malikzada, a combat interpreter since 2003 between NATO forces and Afghan villagers, arrived at the local airport with his wife, 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.
 
They were greeted with balloons, including one of the American flag, and a boy held a sign, "Welcome to Rochester."
 
While Afghanistan isn't the list of seven banned countries -- which are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- local organizations sped up their efforts to resettle the family in Rochester.
 
"These guys are veterans. But they come here, and they don’t get veteran benefits. They get nothing," Ellen Smith, head of the Rochester chapter of No One Left Behind, which helps Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters come to the U.S.
 
"They arrive here with a suitcase each, and that’s it."
 
New York had 4.4 million immigrants as of 2015, second in the nation only to California, and 22 percent of the New York population was foreign born, according to Census figures.
 
While the majority of immigrants live in New York City, 5 percent of the residents outside the city, or about 585,000 people, were non-citizens, Census data shows.
 
Plans on hold
 
Refugee groups across the region said they have had to put plans on hold because of the immigration order.
 
The International Institute of Buffalo was expecting 22 refugees from various countries over the next few weeks.
In the Hudson Valley, 50 Syrian refugees were slated to resettle in Westchester and another 80 from Syria, Iraq and the Congo were headed to Poughkeepsie.
 
"It’s a one-day-at-a-time proposition now," said Adair Saviola, director of development at the International Institute.
 
New Rochelle's Alhomsi, a 26-year-old Syrian who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been preparing for the arrival of his wife, Sarah Melli, for months.
 
The paperwork for a visa was lengthy. One time, she had to fly to Lebanon, then make the dangerous drive alone into Jordan to be interviewed at the U.S. embassy there.
 
It paid off in November, when she was approved for a visa. But she delayed her arrival to finish her English Literature studies at Damascus University.
 
Alhomsi pre-paid for Melli’s green card, so all she had to do was enter the country to receive it.
Trump's order suspended refugee resettlement for 120 days, with ones from Syria suspended indefinitely.
 
The order also suspended entry to the U.S. for 90 days by citizens of the seven nations, though the judges put a stay on the order until the cases are heard in federal courts.
 
“I didn’t believe it, to be honest,” Alhomsi said of the order.
 
“I’m like, ‘No, this is not happening, not after what we’ve been through.’ We were planning this every single day. It was like a dream at first. It’s a shock, a punch in the face.”
 
Alhomsi speaks with his wife every day and is getting legal help from the Immigration Justice Clinic at Pace University Law School in White Plains.
 
Upstate's refugee surge
Nearly 94 percent of all the roughly 5,000 refugees that settled in New York last year did so outside New York City, state records show.
Over the last 10 years, about 40,000 refugees came to New York, and 90 percent were to places outside the city.
Since 2007, more than 12,500 refugees landed in Buffalo, 9,500 in Syracuse, 6,300 in Rochester and 4,500 in Utica, an Albany Bureau review of data from the U.S. State Department's Refugee Processing Center showed.
There were fewer refugees in other cities: 147 in Binghamton; 78 in Ithaca and 28 in Yonkers, according to the federal data.
 
A network of services, a lower cost of living and decades of work with refugees by upstate groups has fueled the surge, experts said.
 
"Refugees are going to the upstate cities," said Jim Morris, associate vice president for family services at the
 
Catholic Family Center in Rochester.
"Part of it is a financial thing: Every refugee that comes in, they get the same amount of government assistance."
 
The federal government provides a family of four a one-time amount of $3,700 controlled by a designated community group to buy the basic necessities and get them a place to rent.
So that money goes much further upstate than in New York City.
 
"I think we have gone out of our way to let people know that we are welcoming community, that we will do things here to help people get settled," Saviola said.
 
Three-quarters of the refugees who settled in the state over the decade came from just four countries: Burma (34%), Bhutan (19%), Somalia (12%) and Iraq (10%)
 
Last year, the largest group -- 20 percent of them -- were fleeing violence and political upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
 
Seventeen percent came from Somalia and 14 percent -- 803 people total -- were from Syria.
 
Those figures reflect the broader national trends: Congolese refugees were the largest group admitted to the US in 2016. Syrians ranked second, followed by Burmese, Iraqis, and Somalis
 
Local resettlement groups said they have been flooded by emails, phone calls and drop-ins.
Some refugees continue to trickle in, but it isn't clear for how long.
 
Those arriving recently in Rochester have been from Nepal, as well as some Cuban refugees who previously made it to Florida.
 
It took Samer Jacob, 43, a Nutley, N.J. resident who works as a barber in Nyack, Rockland County, years to free his family from the civil war that ravaged his hometown of Aleppo, Syria.
 
When he was finally granted an interview in 2014, he drove 25 hours with his wife, two young children, as well as his brother and his family, to enter Lebanon.
 
They endured a two-hour delay at the border before they were allowed to enter. They then waited a week in Beirut for clearance for a flight to Jordan to meet with the U.S. consulate -- who gave them visas in one hour.
 
Now a permanent U.S. resident, Jacob said his story illustrates the difficult struggle it can be to get into the U.S.
Jacob, who is Christian, fears traveling outside the country to vacation with his family.
 
“How can I go back? I come back and get stuck in the airport. This is a big risk for me,” he said.
 
“Before the war it was very hard to get that visa to the U.S. Now, with the war? No. It’s very hard.”
In Red Hook, Dutchess County, Sana Mustafa, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee, said goodbye to her mother and a
 
16-year-old sister in Turkey late last month and came back to the U.S.
It had been more than three years since her mother and sister had entered the U.S. Refugee Admissions
 
Program after fleeing civil war in Syria.
Soon, they hoped to join her in the U.S. But now her family's fate is in limbo.
 
"I never imagined," she said in an interview Thursday, "this could happen in the U.S. We fled such things back home."
 
What's next?
 
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Thursday sought to sign onto a lawsuit trying to overturn the federal ban, saying the order illegally focuses on Muslims, hurts New Yorkers and infringes on the state's economy.
 
"We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight this discriminatory ban and protect all those caught in the crossfire of its chaotic implementation," Schneiderman said in a statement.
Other New York lawmakers said the ban is necessary.
 
“Temporarily suspending the admittance of refugees and individuals from high-risk countries until we can guarantee they are properly vetted is a common-sense measure focused on protecting Americans," Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, Erie County, said in a statement.
 
The debate, though, leaves some New Yorkers without any immediate remedies.
 
Ahmed Haidar is a post-doctoral research fellow at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he arrived in July for a two-year research project.
 
On Jan. 27, he landed in Saudi Arabia with this pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter to speak at a conference.
 
It was then he learned about the president's order.
 
He is a Yemeni national, and now can't get back to Rochester.
 
“l found out that I am banned from returning to the U.S.,” he said in an email from Saudi Arabia. “I wouldn't have left if I saw it coming."
 
He entered the U.S. on a J1 visa, a temporary entry pass issued to participants in work or study exchange programs.
 
“I am not an immigrant, a refugee or a permanent resident,” Ahmed said.
 
“I am not planning to stay in the U.S. I have a visa, and I pay my taxes. What is the point of banning me from entry? A good question to answer.”
Includes reporting by Democrat and Chronicle staff writers Steve Orr, Sean Lahman and Brian Sharp, and
 
Poughkeepsie Journal staff writer John Ferro.
 

 

Gannett Albany


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