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Decreasing the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers into the U.S. has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. We hear mostly about people at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is also affecting refugees from wars and humanitarian crises. The number of refugees being resettled in the U.S. is now the lowest it's been since 1980. The White House is weighing cutting that even further. And resettlement programs that support those refugees are starting to close. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on one popular program in Montana that faces possible closure.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's the first day of school in Missoula and a new beginning for Elongo Gabriel, a Congolese refugee.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you girls ready? You say bye to Papa.
SIEGLER: Elongo is dropping off his young son and two daughters. A proud father, he has a wide grin.
ELONGO GABRIEL: For me, it's like a dream to get a chance for my kids to study here.
SIEGLER: Getting here, to a safe place, was a long saga. They fled war in their home country, where Elongo worked for a human rights NGO, then spent the next six years in Tanzania in a destitute refugee camp. In July, their first time on a plane, they flew to Los Angeles and arrived in Montana the next day.
GABRIEL: It was a very wonderful day for us, and we cannot forget that that day.
SIEGLER: Elongo is one of 330 refugees resettled since 2016 in Missoula, a college town of 75,000 people ringed by mountains and snow-fed rivers. This is Montana's more cosmopolitan, liberal enclave. But like much of the rest of the state, it's not diverse. Jen Barile heads the Missoula office of the International Rescue Committee. It's one of nine State Department contractors that resettle refugees in the U.S.
JEN BARILE: Coming to a place where you're going to see mostly white faces is hard.
SIEGLER: But Barile says refugee resettlement is working well here and across rural America. There are jobs to be filled. And she says in smaller towns like this, people watch out for each other.
BARILE: A lot of the families tell us that they get so much more support here in Missoula than maybe their family or friends in larger cities, where maybe the community or the staff don't have as much time to devote to them.
SIEGLER: But under new Trump administration rules, this office has to resettle at least a hundred refugees a year to keep its funding. And that's likely going away - and not just here in Montana. More than 50 resettlement programs across the country have already had to close, and many more will follow if, as expected, the White House further reduces the number of refugees allowed in each year. Refugees fleeing war, famine are caught in the middle of a national political fight.
Shatha Abdelber watches her two kids play in the small apartment she rents in a low-income housing complex in Missoula.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING, CROSSTALK)
SIEGLER: She fled the Syrian civil war to neighboring Jordan. Her parents are still in Jordan. The local resettlement office just started helping her try to get her parents to the U.S. That now is likely on hold.
SHATHA ABDELBER: (Foreign languages spoken).
SIEGLER: Speaking through an interpreter, Abdelber says, "of course life is better here. It's safe. "But," she says, "we may not see our family again, and our future is uncertain."
The upheaval in federal refugee policy could upend a community that's just starting to feel like they're settling in. There's now a popular refugee soccer tournament, monthly pop-up supper clubs with food made by Syrians and Eritreans, and the Congolese community just opened a church.
SHIRLEY LINDBERG: It would break my heart to see it just stop.
SIEGLER: Shirley Lindberg is the English language learner coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools.
LINDBERG: This has impacted so many people in our community in a positive way. It's opened up their eyes to other cultures. I have seen so many people changed because they got to work with refugee families.
SIEGLER: Now, the farther you travel from Missoula, though, the less likely you are to hear something like that. President Trump won Montana easily, partly due to a big turnout in more rural places like the Bitterroot Valley, an hour drive south of the city. Once a collection of sleepy farming towns and apple orchards, the Bitterroot has boomed lately with retirees and conservative transplants looking for their slice of Montana.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF A KIND, WORKIN' ON A FULL HOUSE")
DENNIS ROBBINS: (Singing) Her strong country loving is hard to resist. She's my easy lovin' woman. I'm her...
SIEGLER: At the Ravalli County Fair, you see people wearing just as many red Trump hats as cowboy hats. Theresa Manzella is working the local GOP booth where there's a gun raffle and Trump 2020 stickers and tees. She's a state legislator. She says President Trump is right to curtail refugee resettlements.
THERESA MANZELLA: So that's my first concern - is the health, welfare and safety of our own American citizens.
SIEGLER: Three years ago, when the Missoula refugee program was restarted, Ravalli County passed a resolution opposing their relocation to the area. Another county north of Missoula followed. Manzella says the president is doing the right thing by focusing on illegal immigration first. Then, she says, maybe the country can revisit letting in refugees.
MANZELLA: People are concerned. People have boundaries - and I think appropriate boundaries. They want to protect their lives, their livelihoods, the lives of their family members.
SIEGLER: This sort of nativism resonates in rural states like this. Ironically, though, if the Montana resettlement office closes, refugees who are already here could be left mostly on their own. That will worry people on both sides of the political divide, if for very different reasons.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Missoula.
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