Refugee Resettlement Organizations Across U.S. Prepare for Historically Low Refugee Cap
Refugee agencies across the nation are bracing themselves for President Trump’s presidential deliberation on the refugee cap for the coming fiscal year. An official decision is due on Oct. 1, but the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that the cap will be lowered to 45,000. This would be a drastic cut from the 110,000 permitted under the 2016 fiscal year budget, and the lowest ever since the Refugee Act was signed into law in 1980.
Among organizations that would be affected by cuts to the cap are Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Nassau Presbyterian Church. Both work to resettle refugees, but operate on vastly different scales. KRM is a statewide organization that resettled about 1,190 refugees during the last fiscal year, and Nassau Presbyterian Church is a community sponsor that has resettled eight refugee families in the last 25.
John Koehlinger, the executive director of KRM, said that it was “unfortunate” that there was no congressional or judicial countermand to the presidential deliberation.
“It’s just a piece of paper he signs with a number on it,” he said. Koehlinger also criticized the Trump administration’s attempt to frame refugees as an economic burden to the public, citing its rejection of a Department of Health and Human Services study that found that refugees have brought in $63 billion more in government revenue over the past decade than they have cost. Tom Charles, a member of Nassau Presbyterian who works closely with the refugee families the church sponsors, reacted similarly to Koehlinger and called such a reduced refugee cap “catastrophic and very unpatriotic.”
Both men agreed that Trump’s decision would have an immense impact on funding for refugee resettlement agencies across the nation. A significant portion of the funding for referral and resettlement agencies comes from the State Department, which gives money to these organizations for every refugee they receive. Consequently, a drastic decrease in the number of refugees arriving in the United States means a sudden drop in funding for the nation’s refugee resettlement infrastructure.
Charles, who stressed that he was speaking only for himself and not his church, worried that these funding cuts will cause lasting and irreversible damage to U.S refugee referral and resettlement agencies by destroying their bureaucratic memory. He said that referral agencies were already laying off long-term employees, adding that these jobs require “special people” with experience, patience, and the ability to perform well under pressure.
“They’re losing people they may never be able to get back,” Charles said.
KRM, which receives about 30 percent of its funding on a per capita basis from the State Department, is already experiencing budget cuts. Additionally, Koehlinger said that grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, are also being cut, representing a significant reduction to around half of KRM’s budget. In total, he expects a 20 percent decrease in ORR funding.
There’s a great deal of overlap between the operation of KRM and that of the New Jersey agencies Charles and Nassau Presbyterian have worked with. For example, KRM depends heavily on community sponsors like religious groups, local businesses, and, once, a group of Pakistani doctors, to mitigate the costs of resettling refugees. Charles also stressed the importance of community sponsors, adding that the United States desperately needs more organizations like Nassau Presbyterian or the Jewish Center of Princeton to help new arrivals settle in.
Despite these similarities, Charles and Koehlinger have had very different experiences navigating, and helping the refugees they work with navigate, the requirements and systems of their state governments. Refugees are required to find employment within six months of their arrival in the United States.
Koehlinger said that KRM’s three full-time job developers usually find their clients employment very quickly, but those who do not find work in two months are referred to a Kentucky job readiness program that requires them to do thirty hours of volunteer work a week and bring a signed record of their volunteer hours to the Department for Community Based Services to maintain their public benefits. He said that, besides being difficult for new arrivals to navigate, this system prevents refugees from enrolling in English classes, cultural orientation programs, and job training at KRM, and ultimately delays them from finding long-term jobs. Koehlinger also criticized Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s call for more stringent work requirements for refugees to receive Medicaid and welfare, noting that many refugees arrive in the United States with pre-existing medical conditions and a great deal of trauma.
“You can’t come from a refugee camp and start working the second you get off the plane,” Koehlinger said.
Conversely, Charles was “pleasantly surprised” by how helpful and supportive New Jersey government programs were. According to Charles, the Syrian family Nassau Presbyterian sponsored last year was the only one they’ve ever sponsored that needed public benefits. The husband’s blindness made it difficult for him to find work and neither adult spoke any English. The wife enrolled in WorkFirst, the New Jersey equivalent of Kentucky’s job readiness program, and completed volunteer work in exchange for maintaining her family’s benefits. But Charles said that the system was not overly difficult to navigate and asserted that all government employees they encountered were welcoming and friendly, despite New Jersey Gov. and University Trustee ex officio Chris Christie’s declaration that he would not accept any Syrian refugees, including orphans under the age of five.
Charles dismissed Christie’s assertion that accepting Syrian refugees was a risk to national security.
“It’s so formalized in practice and in law that when a refugee has finally passed all those tests I have no doubt in my mind that they deserve the opportunity of finding a new home, no matter where they came from,” Charles said.