Recognizing that the United States is failing thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn countries, the Obama administration is conducting the first thorough review of the refugee resettlement system in 30 years and plans to announce major reforms this summer.
Officials say the system is outdated and lacks adequate resources to help refugees find jobs and support themselves before exhausting their benefits. That task has been made more difficult by the recession and high unemployment.
“The basic set-up of the program hasn’t been altered in many years,” said National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang. “It was time to take a fresh look.”
Several changes have already been made to ease the transition for newcomers, most of whom have no U.S. work experience, little savings and limited English skills. The largest numbers of refugees last year–admitted based on persecution or fear of persecution–came from Iraq, Bhutan and Burma.
In January, the State Department doubled the amount of money, from $900 to $1,800, that resettlement agencies receive to cover housing and other needs for each refugee in the first month. And the Department of Health and Human Services has requested an additional $25 million from Congress for case management and emergency housing in 2011.
One of the most significant proposals being considered would extend federal cash aid for eligible refugees past the eight-month maximum. Officials are also discussing ways to improve coordination among the various government agencies that share responsibility for resettlement and to expand medical screening and cultural orientation.
Resettlement agencies said reforms are long overdue.
“The system is broken,” said Robert Carey, chairman of Refugee Council USA, an umbrella group of resettlement and advocacy groups. “There are women who can’t feed their children adequately and people who are really being brought into poverty. . . . There is a federal obligation in this to ensure that people brought in here are given the basic tools to rebuild their lives.”
When the system was established by Congress in 1980, the U.S. was responding to an influx of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia, said Eskinder Negash, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Today, the caseload is more diverse and a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer effective, he said. In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. accepted nearly 75,000 refugees from more than 70 countries, including many with special needs, such as single mothers and torture victims.
The system assumes that all new arrivals will be supporting themselves within a short period. But with the economic downturn, refugees often take months to find work.
The amount of public assistance refugees are offered varies among states and often doesn’t cover basic needs. In San Diego, a family of four typically receives about $828 a month compared with $335 a month in Phoenix, according to resettlement workers. Families with children are covered by the same welfare programs as American citizens, while those with no children receive federal cash and medical assistance specific to refugees. All refugees are eligible for food stamps.