Resettlement programs struggle with fewer refugees

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 27th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. It began nearly 40 years ago. During that time, more than 3 million refugees have come to the United States. 

The federal government partners with several non-profit organizations to help out. It divides incoming refugees among the groups and pays them for each refugee they resettle.

REICHARD: Since President Trump came into office, he’s drastically cut the number of refugees coming into the country. This year, the president set the ceiling at 30,000—the lowest number in the history of the program. 

This means that some nonprofits are closing down offices and laying off workers. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG REPORTER: Natalie El-Deiry is the executive director of the International Rescue Committee office in Salt Lake City, Utah. The IRC is one of the federal government’s nine refugee resettlement partners. 

El-Deiry says when refugees arrive, her office is prepared to support them for up to two years. 

EL-DEIRY: We are the first faces that people see when they arrive and there’s work that happens even before an arrival comes to Salt Lake City with setting up someone’s housing, making sure that their homes are furnished, that we have their medical appointments scheduled, and that we can get them enrolled in resources rather quickly.  

Before 2017, El-Deiry’s office consistently helped 5 to 600 refugees each year. Since President Trump came into office that number has dropped by half. 

With fewer refugees and less federal funding to work with, El-Deiry has had to lay off five employees. Others have chosen to move on—as rumors swirl that President Trump may completely halt the refugee program next year. El-Deiry says when these employees leave, they take skills with them that were years in the making. 

EL-DEIRY: When there is so much uncertainty, we end up losing people who have this institutional knowledge, who have this expertise in working with refugees who have certain types of cultural competency who have a passion for this work. 

Aden Batar is the director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Utah. He says the federal government has chosen to fund refugee resettlement for both moral and economic reasons. Refugees open businesses at faster rates than American-born citizens and quickly become self-sufficient.

And, Batar says, it’s smarter for the federal government to partner with expert nonprofits than to try and resettle refugees on its own. 

BATAR: The refugee crisis is not something that is going to end anytime soon. It will continue for years to come. But we need to keep the capacity.

That capacity to resettle refugees is shrinking. Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, another federal partnering nonprofit. Since 2016, the Christian organization has closed seven offices. 

Soerens says most of the employees at these offices were once refugees themselves. That gives them unique language and cross-cultural skills. 

SOERENS: For example, if you speak Burmese, there’s not a lot of American Christians who speak Burmese. Like, that’s a hard person to hire for. 

When these employees leave, they find other jobs. But that means if and when the number of refugees entering the country goes back up, the former staffers might not be available to come back. 

SOERENS: It might be easy for people to think of this as sort of a light switch that you turn off and on and it’s not. Should the number of refugees go back up in a few years and we want to reopen in a new place, it’s not a simple process at all.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the CEO and president of Lutheran Immigration and Rescue Service. It began resettling refugees during World War II. She says so far her organization has been able to weather the storm without closing offices. 

VIGNARAJAH: So what that has meant is we’ve turned to private partners We turned to our congregations. We’ve turned to our communities to be able to do more with less.

Vignarajah says if President Trump were to zero out the refugee program next year, her group’s budget would shrink by millions. That would most likely mean big staff cuts and office closings. 

VIGNARAJAH: In terms of figuring out how long that would take us to rebuild… honestly I’m not sure if we would ever get it back. But it is something that is very difficult to predict how we would be able to guarantee the preservation of that institutional knowledge, the specialized skill set. 

Jen Smyers is the policy director for the Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program. She says the much lower refugee resettlement ceiling is building a refugee backlog. 

SMYERS: Because the numbers are so low, it means that now anyone who was supposed to have been resettled in 2017, many of them haven’t even arrived. So then you look at people who should have come in last year and now everyone is pushed back substantially. 

Smyers says even when more refugees are permitted to enter the country, the damage done to the resettlement infrastructure will make catching up that much more difficult. And may mean less effective help for arriving refugees. 

SMYERS: It’s not impossible. It can be done, but it will take a long time and it will take more of an investment now that we’ve seen some of that structure and capacity dismantled.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Salt Lake City, Utah.

(Associated Press/Photo by Bilal Hussein) A Syrian refugee child in a camp in eastern Lebanon

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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