Aurora has become home to more refugees from the countries listed in President Donald Trump’s now-frozen travel ban than all but four other cities in the state over the past 10 years.
Still, refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Iran make up about a quarter of the total number of refugees that World Relief has resettled in the city, according to numbers provided by Susan Sperry, the executive director of the agency’s Aurora and DuPage offices. Aurora has not seen any refugees from Sudan, Libya or Yemen, the other countries listed in Trump’s executive order, which was put on hold after judges upheld a legal challenge.
Sperry estimated that the “vast majority” of refugees resettled in Aurora have come through World Relief.
Given that Aurora is the second-largest city in the state, Sperry said she would expect the number of refugees who have come from the countries identified in the order to be higher.
A legal battle is raging around the controversial executive order, which Trump has said was designed to establish “new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.” It initially sought to stop acceptance of Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspend at least temporarily the issuance of visas for people from the other listed countries and pause the broader refugee program.
On Thursday, a panel with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to immediately reinstate the directive after a Seattle federal judge earlier issued a restraining order, though the White House has said it would continue to weigh options.
Of the countries listed, Aurora has seen 467 refugees resettled from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Iran since 2007. Chicago, north suburban Skokie and Rockford have each seen more refugees resettled from those countries and, in Chicago and Rockford, from Sudan. Wheaton has hosted only slightly fewer refugees from those countries than Aurora.
In total, World Relief has resettled about 1,875 people in Aurora during those 10 years, Sperry said. That has included Congolese, Burmese and Bhutanese refugees, and they have often ended up on the city’s West Side, she said. More than half have had family or friends in the city already and likely would have ended up in Aurora regardless of whether World Relief had a local office, she said.
When reviewing cases, local World Relief offices weigh cost of living, employment options, available housing and other factors, Sperry said. In Aurora, the agency often resettles people on the West Side because of housing options and its connection with West Aurora School District 129, she said.
Though the U.S. refugee program is federal, rather than state or local, World Relief meets regularly with representatives from the city, police, schools and other organizations, Sperry said.
City officials declined to comment on refugees in Aurora other than to reiterate a previous statement from Mayor Robert O’Connor.
“The city of Aurora stands in support of families in our community,” he has said. “The very fabric of Aurora is interwoven with the stories of immigrants of the past and present.”
In West Aurora School District 129, 60 of the district’s roughly 12,500 students this year came from countries from which Trump has sought to ban travel: 35 from Iraq, 24 from Syria and one from Iran, spokesman Tony Martinez said. He said he could not provide information from earlier years because the district’s computer system does not flag refugee students.
Because those students are spread throughout the district, it does not have a dedicated Arabic-speaking teacher, Martinez said. But the district works with World Relief and provides students a crash course in the types of English words they are most likely to need. It has provided Arabic translators for districtwide events, as it has to translate for other refugee populations in the district, he said.
Overall, Martinez said, students from different backgrounds expose West Aurora students to a variety of cultures.
“We do the best we can to make sure we serve those families,” he said.
Often, after arriving in a city, refugees will relocate to join family and friends or because their job prospects change, Sperry said.
In Aurora, Bhutanese, in particular, have established a strong community, owning homes, grocery stores and small businesses, Sperry said.
Many Iraqis — who outnumber Aurora’s Syrian, Somali and Iranian refugees combined — are purchasing homes in the area, and small businesses catering to them have sprung up, a sign that they are likely to stay, Sperry said. But the 55 Somalis that have been resettled in Aurora since 2007 have tended to move away, often to larger communities in Minnesota or Ohio, she said.
The Syrian community — 105 have been resettled in Aurora since 2007, the majority of them last year — is a recent development, and time has yet to tell what their presence will look like long term, Sperry said.
World Relief has partnerships with several area companies and is able to help newcomers find jobs, typically within slightly more than two months of their arrival, Sperry said. They often work with a staffing agency or manufacturing or light industrial companies, but Sperry said they have been able to find jobs throughout Kane and DuPage counties.
Recently, Sperry said, World Relief staff have heard concerns from refugees about the executive order and whether Americans still want refugees in the country. The organization has sought to provide information during English classes and through case workers, she said.
“With the current climate, there’s a lot of fear,” she said. “Especially the last couple of weeks. There’s a lot of fear about how they’ll be treated, and there’s a lot of fear about what the executive order will mean for these families.”