Alaska News

How will Trump's executive orders on immigration, refugees affect Alaska?

President Donald Trump introduced executive orders this week that would make sweeping changes in the way the United States enforces immigration laws and accepts refugees from abroad.

One executive order announced Wednesday focused on construction of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, toughening enforcement of immigration laws and ending federal funding to "sanctuary cities."

An order announced Friday called for suspending all refugee arrivals in the United States for four months, barring people from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the country even with a visa and halving the overall size of the refugee resettlement program.  It would also indefinitely bar the U.S. from accepting refugees from Syria.

[Inside an Anchorage Somali restaurant, worry about a policy from a president some supported]

How would the changes affect life in Alaska?

Some questions and answers:

How many refugees are resettled in Alaska?


On average, about 130 per year for the past four years. Virtually all end up in Anchorage. The agency that helps resettle them is Catholic Social Services.

Here are the numbers of people resettled in Alaska as refugees:

FY 2012: 88

FY 2013: 106

FY 2014: 141

FY 2015: 146

FY 2016: 111 

Where do they come from?

In total, refugees in Alaska come from 26 different countries — everywhere from Myanmar to Nepal to Ukraine.

But in 2015, the most recent year with statistics available, the countries of origin of the biggest number of refugees were Somalia (69 people) and Sudan (19 people).

Somali and Nuer are among the top 10 languages spoken among students in the Anchorage School District, according to district statistics.  

Refugees make up only a small percentage of people who come to Alaska as immigrants.

Are Syrian refugees in Alaska?

No. Alaska has not resettled any Syrian refugees. The draft version of the executive order on refugee resettlement calls for the immediate suspension of refugees from Syria entering the United States. During the most recent fiscal year, the U.S. admitted 12,500 Syrian refugees.

The draft executive order halts all incoming refugees for 120 days. What happens to people already in line to come to Alaska?

No one knows yet, said Lisa Aquino, the director of Catholic Social Services, which runs the Refugee Resettlement Immigration Service.

Usually, the agency finds out who is arriving about a month ahead of time.


Aquino said that for February they were expecting to resettle a family from Ukraine including a pregnant mother, her husband and 2-year-old daughter. They were going to join family members who've been living in Anchorage for seven years, she said. They were also expecting a single person from Somalia, who was supposed to join family members already here.

Under the draft executive order, their cases would be in limbo. When refugee resettlement was suspended after 9/11, people whose cases were suspended "went to the back of the line" in the lengthy process, Aquino said.

Not knowing what will happen puts case managers, tasked with finding apartments and setting up other services to ensure a smooth arrival, in limbo. 

"If there's a stop, it could start tomorrow, or in a month, or in six months," Aquino said.

How would the 30-day ban on people from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sudan entering the country affect Alaska?

It is hard to say, because Alaska does not have large populations of people from Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Iran. But in the Somali refugee community in Anchorage, it means that hope has dimmed for people who want to bring family members scattered around the world to Alaska, said Mohamed Shide, a hospital security guard originally from Somalia who lived in Anchorage.

If the number of refugees resettled in the United States is cut — from 110,000 per year to about 50,000 per year, according to the executive order — will refugees still be resettled in Alaska at all?

That is also unknown, said Aquino. But Anchorage is an attractive destination for refugee resettlement for several reasons, she said: The availability of jobs is a big draw, as is what she described as a community that "goes out of its way to be welcoming."


During a time of national conversation about how many refugees the United States should take in, donations to help resettle people in Anchorage have gone up, Aquino said. 

What's a sanctuary city? Does Alaska have any? 

A "sanctuary city" is a broad term used to mean a state or local jurisdiction that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. There are sanctuary cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago and sanctuary counties.

Trump's Wednesday immigration order said that sanctuary cities that don't cooperate with a federal crackdown on immigration law enforcement would lose federal funding.

In 2010, Anchorage's city attorney asked a website that had listed it among sanctuary cities to remove the designation.

When asked by Alaska Dispatch News this week whether he would support Anchorage becoming a sanctuary city, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wrote:  "I support the values that make Anchorage a safe and welcoming community for all of our residents."

If the federal government tells Anchorage police to check documents and more stringently apply immigration enforcement, does the mayor believe they should be instructed to do it?

Berkowitz wrote in an email that the 10th Amendment holds that the federal government "does not have power over law enforcement, but the Municipality has and will continue to comply with criminal detainers."

Berkowitz wrote that "the problem with federal overreach is it commandeers local resources for federal priorities. We are growing our police force locally to implement community policing, which will make Anchorage a safer community." 

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at