Gov. Kevin Stitt’s approval to be required under new refugee resettlement order

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Gov. Kevin Stitt talks on Friday, Nov. 1, following a commutation hearing at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Oklahoma’s governor and mayors will soon be required to approve the resettlement of refugees across the state, a new requirement from the Trump administration that potentially adds another layer of politics to immigration policy.

An executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September instructs the federal government to “resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the state and local governments have consented to receive refugees under the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program.”

Trump gave the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Health and Human Services a Dec. 25 deadline to outline the specific process for how local leaders are to go about approving or rejecting refugees.

But officials with Oklahoma’s only refugee resettlement organization have already begun to urge Gov. Kevin Stitt to offer his approval for new refugees, which are individuals fleeing persecution that go through a significant vetting process by the federal government before being granted legal access to the U.S.

“We are not opposed to any opportunity to engage with government leaders at all levels to ensure their understanding and support for this great work,” said Patrick Raglow, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, which resettles refugees across the state.

“At the same time, we are dismayed at the late introduction of this requirement along with its incomplete compliance guidance, both of which will disrupt the flow of any arrivals nationally and prevent organizations like mine from assessing how many arrivals we can expect in the coming year until this process is complete, and its implications on whether we can sustain our ability to serve refugee arrivals in our community.”

State and local governments have traditionally had very little control over refugee resettlement.

Stitt’s office said it was waiting to hear further details from the federal government about what will be required.

“Historically, Oklahomans have been compassionate towards refugees that are facing dire political or religious circumstances in their home countries and are being relocated to the U.S. after a very thorough legal vetting process,” said Donelle Harder, a senior policy adviser for the governor.

“The governor’s office has been in contact with the Trump administration to better understand what expectations could be placed on the states, and we will be prepared to comply accordingly, and in the best interest of Oklahomans, when the final guidance is issued by the federal government.”

Donald Trump appears at a rally in Tulsa in January 2016. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

When Stitt addressed immigration during his 2016 campaign it was mostly to express support for Trump’s attempt to strengthen border security.

Raglow said he also plans to reach out to mayors in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Guymon, the three cities with the largest refugee populations.

When reached by The Frontier, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said he had not heard of the executive order.

Holt also said he would need to learn what role the city council would have since much of his power comes through council approval.

Both Holt and the office of Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum declined to comment on how they might respond to the new requirement, stating only that they would wait for the federal government to finalize the process for approving refugee resettlements.

Some refugee advocates fear that local government leaders, who can typically deflect the partisan politics of immigration to the federal government, might now feel pressure to take a political stand.

Both Holt and the office of Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum declined to comment on how they might respond to the new requirement, stating only that they would wait for the federal government to finalize the process for approving refugee resettlements. Frontier file

“You might have a mayor of a city that is perfectly fine with refugee resettlement, but you might have a governor who is anti immigrant and will stop it because he ran on that,” said Steven Langer, an immigration attorney in Oklahoma City.

“Giving a governor and a mayor veto power over whether a city or state accepts certain kinds of refugees would obviously be in Trump’s game plan of reducing immigration.”

The Trump administration has taken several steps to decrease both legal and illegal immigration, including new security and income requirements for refugees. That effort comes at a time when the global refugee count has swelled to more than 70 million, the highest in more than 70 years, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. — decreasing the cap from 110,000 to 30,000 last year, and then lowering the cap again to 18,000 this year.

The Asian District in north Oklahoma City became a hub of Vietnamese culture after hundreds of refugees from the country began to arrive in the mid 1970s. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The reduction forced some organizations to shutter their resettlement programs, including Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City office now oversees placement in the Tulsa area.

Refugee resettlements in Oklahoma City regularly topped 200 annually prior to Trump’s cap reduction. This year’s number is expected to be half that, Raglow said.

“Our counterpart in Tulsa was compelled to withdraw from Refugee Reception and Placement due to excessive financial costs against the reduced arrival numbers, and our agency was asked to assume resettlement activity in the greater Tulsa area, which we began in June 2019,” Raglow said.

An American flag and South Vietnamese flag fly at a park in the Asian District in Oklahoma City, where hundreds of refugees have settled. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Decades of refugee resettlements have transformed communities across the state, most visible through the thriving Asian District in north Oklahoma City and a concentration of Zomi/Burmese businesses in a south Tulsa neighborhood.

While Trump’s anti immigration rhetoric was constant throughout his 2016 campaign and first term, even some members of his own party have pushed back on his attempt to reduce refugee resettlements.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, signed a letter sent to Trump earlier this year urging him to reconsider the low refugee cap.

” … we urge you to increase the refugee resettlement cap and to admit as many refugees as possible within that cap,” the letter said. “America has a responsibility to promote compassion and democracy around the world through assistance to vulnerable and displaced people.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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