Maylary Apolo lived in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand for 20 years. She first arrived there in 1992 after fleeing the civil war in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Apolo and her family are Karen, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, and they were experiencing increasing persecution in their home country: She said the authorities became suspicious of her father’s church work. So they left for Thailand by foot.
“In the camp, our life was not safe,” Apolo, 51, said. “In 1996, we got attacked by Burmese military in the camp.” In the morning, Apolo said they evacuated the camp and hid along a nearby highway. By the evening, they returned to the camp and found two women had died in the attack.
Twelve years later, Apolo and her family escaped the camps and moved to South Carolina. By 2011, they had settled in Worthington, Minnesota, as legal permanent residents. She now lives in Austin with her husband, Mordecai, and her five young adult children: Austere, Fairy, Star, Dominic, and Orchid.
While the resettlement process was long for Apolo, the timing worked out in her favor. Just one year before Donald J. Trump became president, Apolo and her family received citizenship. They even managed to get a visa to go back and visit Mordecai’s parents in Myanmar, right before his mother passed away in 2015.
While Apolo’s immediate family have all relocated to the United States, her adult nephew Stone and his 18-year-old daughter, Melody, are still living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Melody has never lived outside the camp.
“He said to me, ‘I really want to come close to family and focus on my daughter’s education,’” Apolo said. Melody has reached the end of the schooling offered at the camp and is hoping to come to the United States to attend college, like Apolo’s five children.
Apolo, and many other refugees in Minnesota, have renewed those hopes following the recent election of Joe R. Biden. The new administration holds the promise of resetting four years of restrictive policies that drastically shrank and degraded the process of refugee resettlement to the United States.
Immigration attorneys and refugee resettlement advocates in Minnesota hope that an increase in refugee admissions will allow them to process more cases and make a dent in a growing backlog. As a result, more families can be reunited in Minnesota. The state’s economy, especially in less-populated counties, would likely also benefit from an influx of refugee arrivals.
Trump made ruthless anti-immigrant rhetoric a centerpiece of his campaign, releasing streams of racist rhetoric and untruths during his visits to Minnesota.
“Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” Trump said at a rally in Duluth in October. Of Minnesota’s refugee population, Trump said they come “from the most dangerous places in the world including Yemen, Syria, and your favorite country, Somalia.” The crowd booed.
Beyond the hate speech, Trump governed with the same xenophobic agenda. His administration issued more than 400 executive decisions in the last four years targeting immigration to the United States.
One of Trump’s executive orders from 2019 granted counties the power to refuse refugee arrivals. In Minnesota, Beltrami County became the first county in the state and the nation to ban refugees from resettling.
Many of these executive actions damaged the refugee resettlement system in the United States. For his final trick, in October, Trump set the limit of refugees allowed entry to 15,000—a record low in recent American history.
Within his first 100 days in office, Biden has pledged to propose more than a dozen initiatives addressing immigration with the goal of reversing some of the damage done by the Trump administration. Biden announced these plans on his website November 9.
One proposal is to raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 next year. Before Trump took office, the cap stood at 110,000.
Under Trump, however, refugee resettlement has drastically declined since 2016. More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Minnesota that year, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This last year, only 356 were admitted in the state.
Waiting to move to Minnesota
Minnesota can point to a long history of welcoming immigrants. More than 480,000 immigrant residents in Minnesota make up 8.6 percent of the state’s population. Since 2005, about 33,000 refugees have relocated to Minnesota.
Refugees from Somalia make up the highest number of arrivals in Minnesota, with over 13,000 refugees in the last 15 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. But a growing number of refugees from Myanmar relocated to Minnesota, with more than 8,000 arrivals since 2005.
Refugees who have come to Minnesota 2005–2019. From the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
Michelle Rivero is the director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, a department in the City of Minneapolis. The office advises the city and its residents on immigration issues and also administers funding to nonprofit immigration law offices.
“We’re experiencing a situation where there’s an increasing number of people worldwide who are fleeing conflict,” Rivero said. “The need to have a robust refugee resettlement program has not decreased. If anything, it has increased.”
Trump’s torrent of anti-immigrant rhetoric has effectively clouded a public understanding of the crises that cause refugees to seek admission to the United States and what that process looks like. A refugee is a person forced to flee his or her country because of war, violence, natural disaster, or other forms of danger. According to the United National High Commissioner for Refugees, the identification of refugees in need of resettlement is an ongoing and systematic process.
The application requires detailed knowledge and documentation of the refugee population, their specific needs, and their vulnerabilities. U.N. staff then interview the applicant to assess each claim. If a claim is accepted, the U.N determines which country the individual will go to.
Eight different U.S. agencies participate in screening prospective refugees: The Department of Homeland Security conducts three rounds of in-person interviews. The entire process can take years, and the timeline can vary depending on how many refugees the United States is admitting in a given year.
In Minnesota, more and more families are waiting for family members to be processed and relocated to the United States. The majority of these refugees come from Somalia and Myanmar. Some of them have been waiting in camps in Kenya or Thailand for decades.
Despite major cuts, significantly fewer refugees are actually coming to the United States, too. With a cap set at 18,000 refugees in 2019, the United States resettled just half that number. This could potentially be a result of an executive order made by Trump that granted local governments with the authority to turn away refugees. Of that number, fewer than 400 refugees resettled in Minnesota—a tiny number for a state with a population of about 5 million people.
“I’m thinking about people who are hoping to be reunited with their loved ones and the emotional damage of continuing to be separated,” Rivero said.
‘Every single case has involved fighting tooth and nail’
There are 79.5 million displaced people around the world, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. That’s the greatest number since World War II. Experts in Minnesota say that the number of refugees coming to the United States should expand to accommodate the greater worldwide need.
Sara Karki, an attorney for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in Austin and Worthington, helped out with Apolo’s case. Apolo now works with Karki as a legal assistant.
“Like Maylary’s story represents, the numbers really speak for themselves. Refugees end up contributing a ton more than any benefits they might receive,” Karki said. “All of her kids have gone to college, and her older son is in the Marines now. They’re doing everything they can so their kids can have a chance to succeed, and they are.”
According to the American Immigration Council, immigrant workers in Minnesota constituted 11 percent of the labor force in 2018. Immigrant-led households paid $2.9 billion in federal taxes and $1.5 billion in state and local taxes that same year.
Another study from New American Economy tallied over 18,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Minnesota, some of whom came to the state as refugees.
Karki has watched Apolo’s family thrive, but she said she can’t help but think about other clients from Myanmar who became citizens later on. In previous years, they could have petitioned to bring over family members stuck in refugee camps. But they can’t now, since Trump added Myanmar to his travel ban list in January.
Apolo said she is deeply worried about Stone and Melody’s future. Having spent 10 years of his life in the camp, her nephew recognizes he doesn’t have much of a future. But he believes Melody can have a better life—he just doesn’t know how to help her.
“It’s like your door is closed and you can never open it again,” Apolo said. “It feels like that for people in the refugee camps, especially with my nephew.”
“The United States does have a long history of being compassionate and welcoming refugees, especially in Minnesota,” Karki said. “That we can’t live up to those values today is saddening.”
Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said the nonprofit has encountered new difficulties during the Trump years.
“Every single case has involved fighting tooth and nail,” Iyer said. “Decades before that these were all very, very simple cases.”
Under the Biden administration, Iyer said she hopes her staff won’t have to deal with “unnecessary denials” that keep the organization from helping her clients immigrate successfully.
“It’s going to take time,” Iyer said. “Hopefully it won’t take that long, because we’re talking about groups of people who have been completely ready and just have been waiting for the door to open.”
Iyer said she expects the Biden administration to prioritize raising the refugee ceiling, since that’s a power solely given to the president. Biden could raise refugee admissions as soon as he takes office as a sort of symbolic gesture.
‘It’s not just numbers of people. It’s somebody’s mom or somebody’s children.’
It’s not just a matter of changing a number, though. State and federal governments, legal service providers, and resettlement agencies are all part of the infrastructure responsible for processing, relocating, and resettling refugees. After four years of gutting the refugee arrivals system in the United States, that framework took a blow.
“We had, for so long, such a great infrastructure for supporting refugees and asylees,” Iyer said of Minnesota. “I feel like people are just waiting to return to the times when our arms were open.”
Resettlement agencies, such as the International Institute of Minnesota and the Minnesota Council of Churches, receive their funding depending on how many refugees they relocate in a given year. In Minnesota, most agencies were able to make up for this loss in funding through foundation grants and private donors.
The International Institute of Minnesota offers job training, citizenship classes, case management, and other resettlement services for new Americans. Micaela Schuneman is the director for refugee services. The 100-year-old agency accepted 25,000 refugees as of October.
The agency, however, experienced a decrease in arrivals in the last four years, though. The organization resettled more than 500 refugees in 2016. As of September, they’ve resettled only 109 refugees in 2020.
“Most of our cases are actually families coming to be with their family members,” Schuneman said. “When we see numbers go down, that’s something to think about. It’s not just numbers of people. It’s somebody’s mom or somebody’s children.”
Schuneman said the International Institute of Minnesota had to shift staffing and programming to focus on serving refugees who have already arrived in Minnesota. While they were able to secure funding from foundations and individuals concerned about immigration issues, Schuneman said agencies in other states did not receive that sort of support.
Schuneman added that the U.S. Department of State, which contracts with the International Institute of Minnesota, is ready to start sending more refugees to Minnesota. Agencies like hers are also prepared to start processing more cases. The waiting list, she said, has gotten too long.
“The number of refugees waiting to be resettled is going up,” Schuneman said. “People need a place to go. They can’t just wait forever in refugee camps. That’s not a sustainable option.”
Repairing the nation’s reputation—and becoming a leader again
Biden has announced that he will raise the number of refugees allowed entry to the United States, but that won’t happen until the next fiscal year, or October 2021.
Schuneman also looks forward to a change in rhetoric surrounding refugees, which starts at the top with the president, she said. She hopes that messaging will resonate with more Americans. But she also hopes the change can begin to repair the nation’s reputation in the international community.
“Even if we are not able to quickly increase the number,” Schuneman said, “it would signal to the rest of the world that the United States intends to reclaim our position as the most welcoming country in the world for people who have been displaced.”
And when the United States accepts more refugees, other countries do as well, Schuneman said.
Apolo is cautiously trying to share that optimism. She spoke with her nephew over video chat just before the election. They talked about Biden and whether a new administration could help Stone and Melody’s case. They both hope that Biden will not only accept more refugees to the United States, but will provide organizations with the resources needed to quickly process cases.
Apolo thought back to her own time in the Mae La. She said she couldn’t move freely in the camp, let alone get an adequate education. She said she hoped that her children would get the chance to attend college in the United States. Now that her youngest son is in college, she feels her dreams have come true.
Now, she’s waiting for the same thing to happen for Melody.