Finding Refuge in the Heartland — Refugee Data and Legislative Bill 505

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) — Whether fleeing from a war-torn country, an oppressive government, or in a desperate search for medication, thousands across the world seek refuge in the United States each year.

For a select few, America has already become a second chance at a normal life.

On Jan. 27, an executive order penned by newly-elected President Donald Trump brought a long-debated topic to the forefront of contention.

President Trump’s order attempted to keep refugees from seven countries from entering America for 90 days, as well as suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.

In addition, he also reduced the total number of refugees that will be welcomed into the United States in 2017, to 50,000.

That number is down from an anticipated 110,000.

Following multiple legal setbacks, President Trump’s Executive Order, which became unofficially known as the Travel Ban, was suspended when the U.S. appeals court upheld a decision to block the action.

A new executive order was signed on March 6.

While many on the national stage debated, protested or supported the executive order throughout the process, its effects, either positive or negative, impacted many in the Capital City.

And in the wake of the courts ruling on the controversial Travel Ban, one western Nebraska senator is pushing legislation to ask who is coming to the state, and from where.

1011 News dug deep into the numbers, which were available through the the State Department, and the Office of Admissions – Refugee Processing Center.

In 2016, Nebraska welcomed 1,782 refugees, 591 of which were placed in Lincoln.

That number is up slightly compared to past years, as 1,068 refugees were placed in the Cornhusker State in 2015, 1,128 in 2014, and 1,067 in 2013. So far in 2017, 294 have arrived in Nebraska.

From 2013-2017, the total number of refugees placed in Nebraska made up roughly 1.7 percent of all those resettled across the country, and in that same time frame, close to 2,000 were placed in the state from one of the seven countries included in the travel ban.

1,021 were resettled from the country of Iraq, with 95 coming from Iran, 308 from Somalia, 250 from Sudan, 190 from Syria, and none from Yemen and Libya.

In 2016, the majority of Lincoln arrivals, roughly 440 of 591, came from the country of Iraq.

“One of the things that a lot of people don’t know is that we have a really large population from Iraq in Lincoln,” Program Development Officer at Lutheran Family Services, Lacey Studnicka, said. “We actually have the largest Yezidi population that lives outside of Iraq, that lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

According to Studnicka, Lincoln has always been a popular location for those escaping turbulent situations, with Lutheran Family Services placing refugees in the State Capital since the 1970’s.

“Lincoln has a long tradition of being welcoming. We are officially a welcoming city, known nationally, so that people know when they come here, the community is open and wants them to be here,” Studnicka added.

The large number of arrivals from Iraq is due largely to refugees reconnecting with loved ones, according to Studnicka, who explained that “99 percent of the people who settle into Lincoln are reuniting with friends and family.”

To explore data regarding refugee placement in Nebraska, and across the nation, click here.

Although a large amount of information regarding refugee resettlement is currently available on a national level, one Nebraska state senator wants more locally, in addition to transparency.

On Jan. 18, Senator Tom Brewer, of District 43, introduced Legislative Bill 505, or the Adopt the Refugee Resettlement Notification Act.

Sen. Brewer defended the bill during a meeting of the Judiciary Committee on March 2.

He explained that LB 505 is not about “whether or not we should have refugee resettlement in Nebraska,” but rather it is strictly regarding information.

LB 505 is aimed at requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to make public a series of data regarding refugee placement. The bill would require the information to be posted to a website twice a year, once in July, and once in December.

The information being asked for includes age, race, sex, nation of origin, nation of entry, how many refugees are placed by organizations in Nebraska, plus what benefits those individuals are receiving from the state.

Sen. Brewer, who served multiple tours in the military, argued that this bill serves the public interest, and that there currently is no “central warehouse” where the desired information is collected.

“We don't know enough and it would be nice to have some snapshot and understanding of how many are coming, where they're coming from, this kind of information." Brewer said.

Judy Zabel, one of many Nebraskans who spoke at the Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, voiced her support for LB 505.

"I want to know how many refugees are coming into the State of Nebraska, where they're coming from and how much they are depleting our resources like schools, food stamps and healthcare," Zabel said.

However, Studnicka argued that many resettlement agencies already meet the requirements that Sen. Brewer is suggesting.

“You know, for us, a lot of the reporting requirements and the things that he's asking for are available,” she said. “And so I think that for him to introduce (LB 505) is an education opportunity for us to be able to share with him the information that’s already readily available to everyone in the state.”

Vice President of Programming at Lutheran Family Services, Todd Reckling, echoed the sentiment at the Legislature on Thursday afternoon.

"Each state governor has available a monthly report for the state issued on the following month, from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population and Migration, that provides the following information about refugees: number of arrivals the past month, age categories, gender and nationality," Reckling said.

To read the introductory text for LB 505, click here.

This is part one of a five part series titled “Finding Refuge in the Heartland.” Part Two will air on March 6, and the series will continue through March 9.