Just Imagine: You Are a Refugee

by Gail Ablow | Photography by Rob Finch
Related Stories: Our Town, Your Town: Welcome

A conversation with PERF’s Chuck Wexler and Maggie Brunner
PERF executive director Chuck Wexler speaks at a major convening on the national opioid crisis in April 2017. The event — cohosted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the New York Police Department and held at NYPD headquarters — included police representatives from cities large and small from across the country.

When refugees arrive in the United States from war-torn countries they are often frightened of the police and unfamiliar with U.S. laws — circumstances that can lead to unfortunate run-ins with law enforcement. But across the country there are local police departments determined to change this pattern. With research and insight from the Police Executive Research Forum, known as PERF, local police are advancing innovative ways of interacting with refugee communities and building trust.

PERF is an independent organization based in Washington, D.C., that helps police departments around the country develop best practices. Last year, with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, PERF conducted site visits, examined programs, and held a discussion forum for police and community partners to consider some of the most promising approaches to dealing with refugees in the United States.

Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director for 24 years, and Maggie Brunner, lead researcher on their 2017 report Refugee Outreach and Engagement Programs for Police Agencies, spoke with Carnegie Corporation of New York visiting media fellow Gail Ablow from their offices in Washington, D.C.

GAIL ABLOW: The world is really a very uncertain place for refugees these days, even in the United States. And the police are, perhaps, the most visible representatives of our government. So what is their role as you see it?

CHUCK WEXLER: It’s really been part of American history that refugees, immigrants to this country, have played such an important role. But what we didn’t know until we got involved in this project was just how important the police are to welcoming refugees that come here. A lot of the refugees come from countries where their relationship with the police is bad. They often distrust the police. In some countries police can be brutal, can be corrupt. In the cities that we looked at, it’s the police — American police — who are welcoming refugees to the country and helping them realize what America is all about, and that is a really good story in a sea of difficult news for the police over the last few years.

ABLOW: What was the goal of your report?

MAGGIE BRUNNER: The goal was to pull together promising practices and lessons learned from police agencies across the country who have really pioneered refugee engagement. Refugees require their own specialized type of engagement programs based on their past experiences and all the integration they need to go through. Our goal was to highlight some of the agencies that are doing this really well and bring to light some of their innovative practices.

ABLOW: And how did you decide to focus on San Diego, Fargo, Las Vegas, and Boise?

BRUNNER: San Diego had one of the first programs in the country. They were one of the first to have a physical location; they call it The Storefront, where they have a whole team of civilian police service officers hired from the refugee communities. They speak the language, they know the culture, and they serve as liaisons, so they have a very long-running and successful program. All these cities — Fargo, San Diego, Boise, and Las Vegas — have been some of the first to tap into this area and make a difference.

ABLOW: What came out of the research that was particularly exciting?

WEXLER: I really didn’t know that this had been a role for the police. The police have a million things to do in different cities. And that the Fargo Police Department, in North Dakota, would establish this dedicated cultural diversity liaison position and would make a concerted effort for outreach, I thought that was outstanding. Or Las Vegas, which did an orientation for refugees coming in to talk about city services, and to provide them with answers to their common questions.

Imagine you are a refugee from some faraway country. You land in Las Vegas, Nevada, and see all of the lights; even for those of us who live in this country, Las Vegas can be a little different. Las Vegas created a voluntary home visit program that checks in with refugees to offer assistance. They also provide a focus on youth. In Las Vegas they even have a female engagement team that delivers services like health fairs or beauty nights in culturally sensitive ways. Imagine being a refugee and understanding that the police are not there to check up on you, but to help you assimilate into our culture.

In places like Boise, Idaho; Fargo, North Dakota; Las Vegas, Nevada; and San Diego, California — the police stepped up. They take on a very positive role. And it’s outside of what the police normally do. In these cities it’s become important to see refugees not as a threat, but as strong members of the community who could contribute and also wouldn’t be fearful of the community. The police play this wonderful intervening role of educator and facilitator.

Memory “Patricia” Ntanga, originally from Democratic Republic of Congo, hopes to launch a children’s daycare.

ABLOW: And when you brought police officers and resettlement workers and others together to talk about this, did they discuss whether or not it is difficult for them to coordinate? Aren’t they used to being in their own silos?

BRUNNER: Absolutely. But police can really play an important role as facilitators between groups to cover the gaps. Many resettlement agencies are doing fantastic work with very limited funds in a difficult environment. Police can help them navigate some of the systems in terms of city government and laws, and what services might be available around any given community.

WEXLER: We brought them together in Washington, the police officers from these cities, as well as some of the resettlement agencies, so it was a great meeting. You could see different officers from different cities exchanging stories. You could see that for these officers this wasn’t just another job. They take ownership of these refugee groups. They feel as though they have a responsibility to help acquaint them with America, to be the person who helps them when they have issues.

Refugees might come from a country where the rule of law is really an abstract concept, while here we can say you have rights: a police officer can’t simply arrest you for no reason. There has to be probable cause. You have the right to remain silent. Police are also aware that refugees can be vulnerable; they can be vulnerable to gangs and so forth that see them as unfamiliar with American mores.

Sundus Tawfeeq, originally from Iraq, is glimpsed through the window of her business, Babylon Market, in Boise, Idaho.

ABLOW: Did this idea of having a cultural liaison officer come from a particular place? Or is it happenstance that refugee liaisons are cropping up in different police departments across the country?

WEXLER: You need people who are dedicated to working with refugees and you need people who can learn about the culture of the people they’re dealing with. It’s a two-way street in which the police from these cities are trying to acquaint refugees with American customs, and the refugees are also trying to educate American police about their experiences.

BRUNNER: Many of the police we spoke to in the cities we focused on said that these positions popped up out of necessity. They noticed in these police departments, in communities where they have large refugee populations, they were getting a lot of calls for service based upon what were, at the end of the day, cultural misunderstandings.

In Boise, for example, they told us that they’d been seeing a lot of bike theft because many of the refugees had lived in refugee camps where if you left property outside of your home or dwelling it was considered communal. For the Boise police the answer was: let’s not keep responding to all these incidents. Let’s invest in prevention and in education so that we’re providing people with supportive environments and not responding to cultural misunderstandings.

ABLOW: You said San Diego is one of the most established programs. Are you beginning to see results from any of the police departments?

BRUNNER: Absolutely. A lot of times, the results of prevention efforts are really hard to measure, but the cities we spoke to have seen a reduction in the calls for service based on cultural misunderstandings. They’ve seen refugees be much more willing to participate in the government even to the point where they’re joining police departments themselves. When we were on the ground researching this and walking around with some of the engagement officers, we saw refugees coming up and flagging officers, recognizing them, and bringing their concerns to them. So to me there are many different ways to measure success in this area.

WEXLER: That’s a really good point. One of the nice outgrowths of this program is in cities where refugees go on to be police officers. Whether they’re from Vietnam or Somalia, they get to see the police in a very different light. This is one of the first representatives that they meet when they come here. They learn to speak English and become incredibly valuable to police departments that will need those officers to speak their native language in order to get cooperation from refugees who subsequently come into the country.

In Minneapolis, where there’s a huge Somali population, we have worked in the Cedar River area where people from East Africa have settled. I have known some of the Somali police officers who became part of the Minneapolis Police Department. There’s no question in my mind that they joined the police department because members of the department reached out to them. I think part of the way you might measure success is, number one, it is the right thing to do; number two, it helps diversify your police force with people who can be a bridge to future refugees.

Idaho has been resettling refugees from all over the world since 1975.

ABLOW: It’s forward-thinking of police departments to diversify and to reach out to refugee communities when people naturalize and become citizens. But is there also pushback from within police departments?

WEXLER: I think when you get pushback in these areas it’s because of ignorance. People in this country probably hear stories of what’s happening in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, or in Iran or Somalia. And they may have preconceived views. A program like this demystifies the images that people might have of different cultures, and it’s successful because it’s based on two-way communication between refugees and local law enforcement. These police officers from Boise or San Diego or Fargo have real pride in what they do. They develop a real affinity for the refugees. Also, they recognize that America’s greatest strengths are based upon our diversity and the fact that we’ve always been a welcoming country, that we learn so much from people from other places who’ve come to live here.

ABLOW: Yet there is a national climate where some of the rhetoric indicates there are people who think refugees and immigrants are more prone to terrorism or crime. Have you found any attitudes amongst police that they think refugees and immigrants are more prone to crime or terrorism?

WEXLER: We’ve got a big country and I’m sure there are a lot of different perspectives. But I was just in the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department where there are two different groups we can talk about: there are refugees and there are undocumented immigrants. You can go, as I did, on a ride-along in Los Angeles and you would be surprised to hear officers talking about how valuable these members of the community are to them in terms of providing information on crimes, serving as witnesses, coming forward as victims. In Los Angeles they will not ask undocumented immigrants their status. It’s a policy of the Los Angeles Police Department, since, I think, 1979.

ABLOW: That brings up an interesting question. Do police approach refugee communities differently than they do immigrant communities, some of whom come without proper documentation?

WEXLER: In either case, at least in places like Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, and some other cities, they won’t ask their immigration status. They might ask refugees where they’re from and about their country, but that would not be out of concern that they were going to commit a crime as much as trying to learn about them. I do think some Americans have preconceived notions about someone coming from one country or another, so that’s where the police are very valuable in helping to sort all of that out.

ABLOW: How would police officers describe the role they play versus the role that ICE agents — that is, Immigration Customs Enforcement agents — are being asked to play?”

WEXLER: There’s a division of labor. Immigration is a federal issue, not a local police issue. There is a role for ICE in terms of their statutory responsibilities. But for local police, their responsibility is not immigration as a criminal matter. That’s the distinction.

ABLOW: Whether it’s refugees or immigrants, with or without documentation, do you have a definition for sanctuary city?

WEXLER: I don’t really know what a sanctuary city is. I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on it. Police departments don’t like the term sanctuary city because it implies that you can be in this city and you can commit crimes, and nothing’s going to happen to you because you have a free pass.

Cities that have been labeled sanctuary cities — like Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago — the fact is that their policy is simply not to ask the immigration status of people, because they view that as a federal role. That doesn’t mean people can commit crimes in that city and get away with it. There have been a lot of misconceptions about what living in a sanctuary city means.

I think the term sanctuary city is more a political term than a reality. Police recognize the importance of being able to establish good relationships with everybody in their city so that if a crime occurs they can have people who will come forward. But it doesn’t mean someone who commits a crime, and happens to be here illegally, gets a free pass.

ABLOW: I think that helps clear it up. And yet … Texas passed a bill, SB4, seen as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country, which wants local law enforcement to question people’s immigration status. Are you concerned about a law like Texas’s SB4?

WEXLER: Yes, because it does not allow police to draw distinctions between their role and the role of immigration enforcement. The blurring of those two missions can break the trust that police departments have worked to build. If people are fearful of the police because they think they’re going to ask about their status, then they won’t go to them to report a crime. I like to say that yesterday’s unreported domestic violence case becomes tomorrow’s reported homicide case. That’s why we think it’s important to keep those responsibilities separate. The police have enough to do without putting them in the unfriendly position of asking people their immigration status. That has statutorily been a federal responsibility.

Dustin Robinson is the Boise Police Department’s Refugee Liaison Officer.

ABLOW: What’s the most important thing for people who might have a growing refugee population in their town to understand? Or even people who don’t yet have a population of refugees, what’s the takeaway from all the research and discussions that you’ve had?

BRUNNER: The takeaway is that refugees are important contributors to society, and the best way to ensure immigration and public safety for everybody is to give refugees the support systems and education they need to be successful members of society. Police play an important role in helping to provide education, helping to deliver wraparound services, and helping to do engagement so that that the trust we were just speaking about can really become stronger and be built over time so that everybody is protected.

ABLOW: What was the most impressive thing that you took away after talking to so many people, whether it’s police department chiefs or the officers who are out there in the communities?

WEXLER: The important role that police officers can play in educating newcomers to our country is about what America stands for. To show America as a welcoming country that values freedom, that respects individual rights, and that was founded by immigrants from different places who have come here to contribute. People leave their home countries for a number of reasons. They’re scared. And when they come here, they need American police to put them at ease, to tell them how things work — how to call the police, how to report a crime — because they’re vulnerable. They may be coming from a place where the police are brutal and corrupt, so they have to overcome this cultural stereotype that the police are to be feared. Our police departments pick some of their best officers to work with refugees. Those officers then become cheerleaders for refugees.

The last couple of years haven’t been great for American police. We found this project to be a way to identify something good that was already happening. We’ve been able to tell the stories of these police departments. That’s all we did. We told their stories. We brought them together. And we’ve written this up and sent it out to police departments all over the country. We’ve gotten a lot of different phone calls from departments that now want to establish these kinds of refugee outreach and engagement programs in their own communities. This is a great development — and it is important.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


A former writer and producer for Bill Moyers.com, Moyers & Company, and Bill Moyers Journal, Gail Ablow is currently a visiting media fellow in democracy at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Her first collaboration with the Moyers team was the documentary series On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, followed by Earth on Edge and Kids and Chemicals. Her work has earned four Emmy nominations, a Peabody Award, and an Edward R. Murrow Award. @GailAblow

Until recently research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum, Maggie Brunner served as lead researcher on PERF’s 2017 report Refugee Outreach and Engagement Programs for Police Agencies.

Rob Finch is an award-winning photojournalist and visual storyteller based in Portland, Oregon. As creative director at Blue Chalk Media, he directs, shoots, and edits in both the documentary and advertising worlds. Before helping start Blue Chalk, Finch was part of the team from the Oregonian recognized with the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting. @BlueChalkMedia

Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) since 1993, Chuck Wexler leads a staff engaged in policing research, management studies, and consulting for police agencies, as well as the publication of books and reports on critical issues in policing, police executive education, and policy development. @CWexlerPERF

Like what you read? Give Carnegie Corporation a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.