Centennial affirms acceptance of refugees; presidential order put on hold

After local decisions, federal court halted Trump order that required localities' consent

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The Centennial City Council voted unanimously to continue to allow refugees to be resettled in the city in response to a presidential order that was later placed on hold by a federal court.

“Federal law has long provided for the resettlement of qualified refugees within the U.S.,” Mayor Stephanie Piko said. “The city sought to maintain continuity with refugee resettlement policy that was already in place.”

The council's Jan. 6 decision doesn't change the requirements for refugee resettlement in Centennial, and it offers certainty to the agencies that assist service providers — such as school districts, health providers and faith-based organizations — that they are free to help resettle refugees in Centennial, Piko added.

The vote comes in response to Executive Order 13888, signed in September by President Donald Trump, which mandates that refugees fleeing violence or oppression in their home countries can only be resettled in communities that have explicitly consented.

That means if a state, city or county doesn't give the green light, refugees can still choose to live there, but they would not receive assistance from federally contracted refugee resettlement agencies that connect them to resources and help them adjust.

That includes making sure they're housed, familiarizing them with the community and U.S. cultural norms, setting up health screenings according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol, and helping them plan for economic self-reliance, said Jennifer Wilson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in the Denver area.

That system of assistance is “also intended to support the communities where refugees are resettled,” said Wilson, whose organization is one of three resettlement agencies operating in Colorado.

The agency routinely works with community fixtures such as schools and police departments to make sure they understand differences between U.S. and refugees' cultures, Wilson added.

“They could choose to be separated from their loved ones and receive support, but (we) don't feel that's a choice people should have to make,” Wilson said.

In Colorado, more than 80% of refugees have ties to family here, according to Wilson.

To be granted refugee status, a person must demonstrate he or she faces persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Agencies such as Wilson's had until Jan. 21 to submit letters of consent from states and localities to the federal government to determine their funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Cities waded into uncharted territory in offering consent for refugee resettlement activity, which has its origins in the Refugee Act of 1980.

“The executive order was unprecedented and not well understood or known about by municipalities statewide,” Piko said.

Many local cities and counties consented to continue resettlement in January, including Denver, Arvada, Littleton, Golden and Arapahoe County, among others. Gov. Jared Polis signed a statewide consent letter in mid-December.

Amid localities' rush to pass consent actions, a federal judge in Maryland blocked enforcement of the executive order, according to national reports. U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte's ruling could be appealed, though, as Wilson noted.

“Even if the executive order is struck down, our state and counties in metro area (and) most cities have decided to stand with refugees and affirm that they welcome them, and that's very important,” Wilson said.

Centennial does not see many newly arriving refugees, Piko noted — the city has had zero cases of resettlement in refugees' first 90 days in the country in the past two fiscal years — but the city knows refugees who are being resettled “are eager to contribute to the community,” Piko said.

Refugees are vetted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and go through a process that includes interviews, background checks, medical screenings and classes to ensure they're able to resettle — a process that usually takes up to 36 months, Piko said.

A 2017 study by the Colorado Department of Human Services found that for every dollar invested in refugees, the state receives a $1.23 return in tax revenue.

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