Trump-endorsed immigration bill divides Syrian, Iraqi refugee activists

A congressional proposal backed by President Trump to cut legal immigration to the U.S. has divided some activists for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Ayman Abdel Nour, executive director of Syrian Christians for Peace, and a refugee who fled persecution himself, said the current system is in desperate need of overhaul.

“It is a broken system, there is a lot that can be done to reduce” the cost to taxpayers, Nour told Fox News. “Many of the refugees coming are over 65, or they are coming and then bringing over elders, and those people can’t contribute to the workforce and have to live off others. This should change.”

But Mark Arabo, President of Minority Humanitarian Foundation, which advocates for persecuted Iraqi Christians, said the proposed changes are simply “un-American and unethical” and “make our immigration system a game of playing favorites.”

Trump joined two Republican senators on Wednesday to champion the legislation, which would overhaul legal immigration in America.

The bill – entitled the RAISE Act – would implement a merit-based system rather than the existing system of residents and citizens being able to bring in family members. It would also favor applicants based on their English language ability, skills and education.

“Our current system does not work,” said co-sponsor Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

Nour said there are those in the Syrian community who have figured out how to “milk the system” in obtaining government payments as caregivers for elderly parents.

Still, he cautioned that creating an immigration system based on merit is not as simple as examining one’s occupation and level of education.

Nour also said something needs to be done about people with special skills, such as his anesthesiologist wife, who have to go back to school for several more years in order to qualify to practice in the U.S. This would continue to be a problem even with the RAISE Act.

Arabo, on the other hand, sees no benefits with the new bill.

“If we shift our immigration system to one that benefits solely those of higher merit, of greater education, the Iraqi Christian community is one group that would be heavily impacted,” Arabo said. “We are people that have been largely disenfranchised by the Iraqi government, not afforded opportunities and education that others were granted. Under Trump’s policies, we would remain subjected to cruel conditions.” 

According to Trump, the RAISE Act would prohibit new immigrants and migrants from collecting welfare.

A 2015 study conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that campaigns for lower immigration levels, found that about 51 percent of immigrant-centered households receive some sort of welfare handout – such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid or school lunches – in comparison to 30 percent of U.S native homes. For households with minors, the number jumps to 76 percent for immigrant families, and 52 percent for natives.

Susan Baaj – a Syrian-American in California and chairwoman of the human rights advocacy group Syrian Institute for Progress – favors such a welfare ban.

She agreed that many “take advantage of the system.” She said she routinely hears complaints about families collecting benefits on behalf of dead family members.

“It ends up hurting the reputation of all refugees, and these are the reforms that need to be better looked into,” Baaj said.



Others lament that the current system, which has been in place since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, is riddled with deficiencies that make it harder for an immigrant to be self-supporting.

Therese Gobran, an Egyptian Christian who sought asylum in the U.S in 2015 after suffering persecution from various political and Islamist factions, said she was fired from her hospitality job in northern California last week because her temporary work permit was due to expire.

She said she applied for a new work permit in May, but still hasn’t been approved. She said she can’t drive because she needs a work permit to hold a driver’s license.

“I’m not sure what I am supposed to do to support myself while I wait,” she said. “And no one tells me how long I have to wait for the new permit.”

“Johnny Walker” was a highly-decorated interpreter to U.S Navy SEALs in Iraq who came to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program with his immediate family in 2009.

He said he hopes the bill won’t change that program which was designed especially for foreign nationals who gave valuable service to the U.S government.

“First priority should be to those people who helped America and put their lives are at risk because of it,” said Walker, a pseudonym.

He also faulted the current system for failing to provide new immigrants support in finding jobs.

“I was lucky, I had SEALs to help me and my wife get contracts,” he said. “But most people, even skilled workers in their home countries, come and don’t have the support or means to get a job that even matches their skills. They end up in a bad situation.”


Hollie McKay has been a staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay