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What Trump’s refugee policies could mean for places like Bowling Green, Kentucky

Update: After this story aired, Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon told the NewsHour he has signed a letter of consent for refugee resettlement.


For the year that began in October, President Trump has capped the number of refugees who may enter the U.S. at 18,000 — the lowest level since 1980. The policy is having a significant effect in what may seem like an unlikely place: Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a disproportionate number of refugees has settled in recent years, forming a crucial component of the local economy. John Yang reports.





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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has limited the number of refugees who may enter the United States to the lowest level in decades.

    As John Yang reports, that policy is having an effect in what may seem like an unlikely place.

    This report is part of our look at poverty and economic opportunity, Chasing the Dream.

  • John Yang:

    It's fourth period at the GEO International High School in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

    For 19-year-old Rehema Twizere, this math class is just a small part of a grueling routine. She's been up since 5:30. When school ends, she rushes across town to Trace Die Cast, where she works until almost midnight.

  • Rehema Twizere:

    It's hard, but I have to do it anyway.

  • John Yang:

    Hard, but much easier than the life she left behind three years ago in her native Uganda. After school there, she spent hours trekking long distances to gather water and firewood.

  • Rehema Twizere:

    Here, it's not bad. You would do all those, but you wouldn't get paid. I don't make much.

  • John Yang:

    But it's yours.

  • Rehema Twizere:

    Mm-hmm. It's mine.

  • John Yang:

    Even though it's not much, it's yours.

  • Rehema Twizere:

    Yes. It's mine. It doesn't belong to anyone.

  • John Yang:

    Twizere's story is surprisingly common here.

    While Kentucky's total population ranks in the middle of the 50 states, in the 12 months ending September 30, it resettled the fifth most refugees. An outsized number of them ended up here in the small, but growing city of Bowling Green.

    Their first stop is usually the International Center of Kentucky, which has helped resettle refugees since 1981.

    Albert Mbanfu is the executive director.

  • Albert Mbanfu:

    When I moved to Bowling Green, my thought was, well, I'm coming to this little small city, and I don't think we will have up to 10 refugees.


  • John Yang:

    Between October 2018 and this September alone, more than 460 refugees came to Bowling Green.

    Now, though, President Trump's immigration policies are creating uncertainty for those seeking refuge here. This fall, the administration set the cap on refugees at 18,000 for the year that began in October. That's the lowest level since the official U.S. resettlement program began in 1980.

    And Bowling Green, the seat of Warren County, which the president won with almost 60 percent of the vote in 2016, felt the change immediately. In October, Mbanfu's agency didn't resettle a single refugee, the first time that's happened in his six years as director.

    What would you say if you had the opportunity to sit down with President Trump?

  • Albert Mbanfu:

    Open your heart. Search your soul. The United States is the greatest nation in the world. And, with that, they should have that moral responsibility to say, we will give back a little to save mankind.

  • John Yang:

    More concerning to Mbanfu? Another Trump announcement.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I issued an executive action making clear that no refugees will be resettled in any city or any state without the express written consent of that city or that state.

  • John Yang:

    Refugee advocates feared the move could mean big sections of the country shutting their doors to resettlement. The State Department told refugee agencies to get written consent from governors and county executives.

    More than a dozen state and local governments answered by saying they would continue to welcome refugees. Warren County's executive didn't respond to requests for comment.

    But Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson said he'd welcome the chance to have a say.

  • Bruce Wilkerson:

    If they just give me a number and say, we're going to give you 1,000 refugees today, where are they from? Do they have any skills? Do they have any family members here?

    If we bring in somebody with no skills, no education, and just simply a new individual, that's going to take a lot more of our resources to try to work with.

  • John Yang:

    Researchers say that, in 2016, immigrants contributed more than $560 million to the county's economy.

    At Trace Die Cast, the auto parts maker where Rehema Twizere works, refugees and immigrants make up more than 60 percent of the work force. What's more, Trace has about 40 job openings right now that could be filled by refugees.

    Chris Guthrie is CEO of the family owned company.

  • Chris Guthrie:

    We really need more refugees and more immigrants coming into Bowling Green. And not that's not just a Trace Die Cast problem. That's all the businesses here.

    There's a lack of employees. And for our economy to grow, we need to have people moving here to help to fill those jobs. And if that pipeline is cut off, then the whole community here will suffer from that.

  • John Yang:

    But for local schools, the refugee population presents challenges. The Warren County School District's per-pupil funding has been among the lowest in the state.

  • Superintendent Rob Clayton:

  • Rob Clayton:

    Enrolling students day after day coming from refugee resettlement situations does impact our schools in terms of the available resources that are necessary to enroll these students.

    It's not as simple as walking in the door and giving a child a schedule and saying, go to class.

  • John Yang:

    GEO International is Kentucky's only four-year high school designed for international and refugee students.

    Dean of students Taylor Nash finds himself trying to counter the president's rhetoric.

  • Taylor Nash:

    Our children have come to me before and have asked me, you know, why is our president saying this? He doesn't know what it's like in my country.

    As teachers, we're sometimes the best examples that they have of what Americans are. That puts a lot of responsibility on us, as educators, to try to show them that, you know, just because politicians say one thing doesn't mean that we're all like that.

  • John Yang:

    Ndayiragije Isack owns an international grocery store in Bowling Green. He came to the United States 10 years ago from a refugee camp in Tanzania, where he remembers seeing bags of flour donated by Americans.

  • Ndayiragije Isack:

    So, we'd be like, these people are nice. They are giving this. When I get there, I need to give back.

  • John Yang:

    So, seven years ago, Isack joined the Army National Guard. He says his dream is to serve overseas.

  • Ndayiragije Isack:

    When I'm hearing this comment that we are a drain, what can we do better? My question would be, what can we do better for you to be happy with us?

  • John Yang:

    So that others yearning to breathe free can have the same chance at a better life.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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