Murray • Utah advocates for refugees say new Trump administration immigration policies are hurting many asylum seekers who are fleeing for their lives, not just illegal migrants seeking better jobs.

“There’s this mistaken belief that the problem on the southern border involves illegal immigrants, people trying to come in from Mexico to make money,” said Jim McConkie, co-founder of the Refugee Justice League, a group of attorneys donating time to help refugees.

“It’s a refugee problem. It is people coming from other countries who need asylum” because they face death, torture or incarceration from wars, gangs, drug dealers and others, he said at a news conference Thursday.

Advocates say Utah easily could handle double the number of refugees now arriving in the state. They call for Utahns to push back against proposals that could lower quotas for refugees to zero, split up families or otherwise thwart many people seeking asylum.

“Each time we witness in silence the degrading treatment of others, we surrender a part of our morality,” said league co-founder Brad Parker, speaking especially about splitting families and holding children in detention facilities.

Aden Batar, immigration and refugee resettlement director for Catholic Community Services, said Utah could handle far more refugees — if the Trump administration would allow it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Brad Parker, co-founder of the Refugee Justice League, talks about Aden Batar, Immigration and Refugee Resettlement director for Catholic Community Services, who is a refugee himself, during a news conference to address the current refugee crisis and how it’s impacting refugees in Utah and elsewhere. Thursday, July 25, 2019.
Buy this image

“In Utah, you will only see less than 500 refugees” this year, he said. “We have the manpower and the resources to help at least 1,000 refugees a year or more.”

Batar added that the Trump administration may allow only 30,000 refugees nationwide this year, and news stories say it is considering banning them entirely next year. Batar said America easily could handle at least 95,000.

McConkie especially criticized a new administration policy to reject asylum seekers who pass through a third country en route to the U.S. border — although a California judge this week approved a temporary restraining order blocking it.

He said the policy would bar granting asylum to many people fleeing war and threats in Africa, the Middle East and Central America.

Batar, himself a former refugee from Somalia, said when the Trump administration started restricting direct immigration a few years ago from many countries that are primarily Muslim, many refugees from them started traveling to Brazil or Ecuador to work their way to America via its southern border. He said other countries on that trail do not offer asylum.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Jim McConkie, co-founder of the Refugee Justice League, speaks about the Asylee Crisis, during a news conference to address the current refugee crisis and how it’s impacting refugees in Utah and elsewhere. Thursday, July 25, 2019.
Buy this image

Such people “are not going to want to sit in the refugee camp," Batar said. “They’re not going to wait until they’ve been killed or persecuted. So they have to flee and go whatever way they can to save their lives.”

Said McConkie: “We have a 20,000 backup at the border — 20,000 people who are fleeing for their lives. You can’t get them here to even make their case … because the administration is just putting one bureaucratic roadblock in front of another to slow this down.”

Many sneak in illegally, the attorney said, out of desperation.

“We’re slowing the process down," McConkie added, “so that they’re living in Mexico, where they don’t have the means, the capability to house them, to educate them or to care for them.”

Batar told of an unaccompanied 18-year-old helped by his Utah group after she escaped war in Somalia by traveling to Brazil and then to America. He said she can’t legally work and can’t apply for financial aid for college as she works through several delays to address her case.

Batar said his group also is helping to house about 100 unaccompanied youngsters who escaped troubled countries.

“These children and their lives were saved” by “loving and caring families that are willing to take these children as foster children” as their asylum claims are pending, he said, adding that his agency is seeking more willing foster parents. “We want the administration to get out of our way.”

McConkie said asylum seekers now face what attorneys often call “refugee roulette.”

Because refugees have a difficult time producing witnesses or other proof that they face danger in their home countries, officials who oppose immigration can find reasons to reject their petitions. And “if your heart is in tune with their needs … you will find reasons to bring them in” — so they face roulette in which type of official will handle their cases.

Only if more residents call members of Congress and speak up, he said, will more refugees be helped.

Parker noted he watched Utah celebrate Pioneer Day this week to honor Mormons — including his ancestors — who fled persecution.

“As I saw on TV the images of those held at out southern border, I actually saw the image of my ancestors. It just made me feel that there is still a place in this country, I’m convinced, for the downtrodden.”