"BREAKING NEWS." The all-caps headline from CNN Headline News filled two jumbo TV screens at the Boise office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Feb. 9 at 8:30 a.m. USCIS officers and staff didn't pay heed to the news bulletin, the first of at least a half-dozen "breaking news" items detailing President Donald Trump's legal tussle caused by his effort to curb the flow of immigrants and even legal residents across U.S. borders. At 9 a.m., a USCIS staffer reached for a TV remote control, turned off CNN and replaced it with a static red, white and blue message that read, also in caps: "CELEBRATE CITIZENSHIP. CELEBRATE AMERICA."
"We press on," said USCIS Boise Field Office Director Steve Gossett, a 29-year veteran of the agency which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Press on they did. Later that day, Gossett would administer an oath of allegiance to the U.S. from 43 individuals representing 16 countries, affirming they would henceforward be afforded the privileges of U.S. citizenship. The candidates—refugees and relatives of U.S. citizens—eventually filled the modest Boise office to standing-room-only. One-by-one, they surrendered their current green cards and were handed a large white packet and a small American flag.
"This is really the only piece of paper you'll need this morning," Gossett told the gathering crowd. Before the morning was over, each of the 43 candidates would read from that paper: "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of who or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen." The oath also insists naturalized citizens "bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law" and "perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the U.S. when required by law." As Idaho's newest citizens recited, "I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God," nearly all of them broke into smiles, and many shed a few tears.
However, each new citizen who spoke with Boise Weekly at the naturalization ceremony asked their name not appear in print.
"I have relatives who don't live here," said one. "I love...I truly love being an American today but, no, please don't use my name."
"This is my father, he's 69-years-old and today, he's an American," said another. "We're very proud. We're from Iraq, so please don't print our names." Comments like these were a sobering contrast to naturalization ceremonies in the past, where new citizens freely shared their personal stories.
Idaho began a formal resettlement program in 1975 to assist the growing number of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia. The program expanded to include refugees from Eastern European nations during the Soviet era.
As persecution has reared its head time and again so, too, has the response to the men, women and children who are its targets. In December 2016, the Pew Research Center confirmed "over the past decade, Idaho has consistently ranked among the top states for refugees resettled per capita." The New York Times reported that since 2012, the City of Boise had resettled more Syrian refugees than New York City and Los Angeles combined.
In the days following another ceremony—the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States—refugees were lumped into the growing list of people President Trump doesn't want in this country.
"The danger is that refugees, people with green cards, even visas, were swept into [Trump's] travel ban," said Director of the Idaho Office for Refugees Jan Reeves. "The fear is real. It's tangible. There are more refugees and displaced people in the world than ever before in our history: 65,000,000," he added. "That's one in every 113 people on the planet. It's a crisis of unprecedented proportions."
As BW was going to print with this edition, Trump's travel ban had already suffered two legal defeats: A Seattle-based federal judge temporarily halted the president's executive order, and a second ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Seattle judge's decision. Trump has made it clear he'll continue fighting for his ban, presumably all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, or he'll write a second executive order, which would trigger a concurrent legal standoff.
"What can I say about where we are right now?" asked Reeves. "We're uncertain about where we'll be a week from now or, for that matter, where we'll be tomorrow."
As the immigration/refugee debate raged across the nation over the past week, Reeves was hosting the IOR annual Idaho Conference for Refugees. This year, the conference attracted nearly 500 attendees, including educators, police officers, social workers, caregivers and public officials. Joining them were already-resettled refugees from every corner of the world.
"The screening process for refugees is the most rigorous, robust process to determine whether someone poses a threat to America. Yet, there has been a general failure to acknowledge the rigor of the refugee vetting process," said Reeves. "Facts matter more than ever right now."
In her job, Ellen Campfield Nelson uses facts to effect positive change. Nelson, who heads up the Boise office of consulting firm Agnew Beck, was recruited to help facilitate the conference. When asked, considering the tenuous fate of refugees, what gives her hope, Nelson smiled.
"It's interesting that you asked," she said, pointing to a long row of tables covered with multi-colored index cards. "These are very personal answers. You'll need to look for yourself. We asked them, 'What gives you hope?'"
"The judge that stopped the executive order," answered one.
"Watching those pro-refugee commercials on the Super Bowl," wrote another.
"Social media and how it spreads the word," answered another. And at the end of the table covered with hundreds of neatly-stacked cards, was the answer, "Our children's love and acceptance."