Posted on September 20, 2018

Refugee Agencies Under Siege

Tessa Weinberg and Nausheen Husain, Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2018


{snip} As the number of refugees permitted to enter the United States has fallen, the agencies that serve them have atrophied.

And with the decline, the United States has abandoned its longtime role as a global leader in refugee resettlement. Advocates worry that the world’s most vulnerable will no longer be able to seek refuge here, in a country of immigrants. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the refugee admissions cap for the next fiscal year would be set at 30,000, the lowest so far since the Refugee Act of 1980 was established. Earlier this year, the State Department indicated that even fewer agencies may be contracted to work on resettlement in 2019. The refugee cap last fiscal year was set at 45,000.

The numbers have never before spiraled so low.

So far this year, a little more than 15,000 refugees have been admitted to the U.S., according to the State Department — the lowest in the country’s history amid the largest crisis of displaced people worldwide.

2017, 2018 refugee arrivals decreased dramatically

Refugee arrival numbers by month for each year from 2008 to 2018 show large decreases during the Trump administration. 2018 data cover January to August.

The reduction in refugees has been felt in Chicago, where some resettlement agencies have gone months with no new refugees. At their peak, agencies in Illinois helped acclimate more than 500 new arrivals a month. Now, some months they see fewer than 50 altogether.

Fewer refugees means less federal funding for agencies that receive money from the State Department. Agencies have had to get creative to survive.

As staff members have been let go, larger resettlement agencies have used the lull as an opportunity to re-envision their services, focusing on ways to aid refugees who already call Chicago home.

But smaller operations have had to close after the State Department issued a directive in December: Those settling fewer than 100 refugees a year would be closed or consolidated.


In fiscal year 2017, RefugeeOne resettled 728 refugees — the largest number in its history. This year, it’s unlikely it will reach 200, said Jims Porter, the agency’s spokesman and policy coordinator.

English classes that once spanned five levels and required a waiting list now have fewer than 10 students for just three levels, said Sarah Glazer, the only English language instructor at RefugeeOne.

The lack of refugees entering the U.S. has chipped away at agencies’ infrastructures in other ways.

“It’s really hard to build all programs back up,” Schaffer said. “Once they are broken down, it’s not something where you can just jump to your feet and start all over again.”

Agencies point to a variety of factors that have slashed the number of refugees entering the United States. For fiscal year 2019, President Donald Trump set the cap at 30,000 — the lowest in the program’s history.

And in January, the Department of Homeland Security increased screening measures for refugees.


In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s ban on travel, which included five predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Most recently, the Trump administration decided to cut all aid to an almost 70-year-old U.N. agency that provides resources to Palestinian refugees; a State Department press release expressed concern for Palestinian schoolchildren while calling the beneficiaries “entitled” and the agency “unsustainable.”

In the past fiscal year, only eight refugees resettled in Illinois have come from the five countries. In years past, hundreds of the state’s refugees have hailed from them. In 2017, Illinois resettled only two Palestinian refugees.


But Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser who is credited as the architect of many of the president’s hard-line immigration policies, has often stressed putting the U.S. first.

“Just imagine what could happen if large numbers of radicalized individuals with extremist views were able to infiltrate our immigration system, and how much damage they could do,” Miller said to the Rolling Stone in a February 2017 interview. “… With the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we could help 12 in their home region.”

The refugees agencies serve are often unable to return to their native countries, after being forced to flee because of well-founded fears of persecution, war or violence, according to the United Nations.


In an annual notice issued in March, the State Department hinted that not all nine of the agencies contracted since the 1990s would be funded in fiscal year 2019.

“U.S. funding needs to be in line with how many refugees are coming in, and we’re trying to maintain a national network that can resettle refugees, with the same level of support, even if the number is lower. We’re prioritizing family reunification,” a State Department spokeswoman said. “Even though the refugee ceiling is lower, the quality of resettlement services is not diminishing.”

For the agencies, the change would be a devastating one.

“You’re losing institutional knowledge, talent, the people who really developed the skill sets to carry out this work. And that will take years to build back up,” RefugeeOne’s Porter said. “It doesn’t mean just because Trump is voted out of office that everything will fall back into place. It will take a really long time.”


Agencies worry that even more will be forced to shut their doors, making it harder to help refugees become self-sufficient.


[Editor’s Note: Charts and tables accompany the original story.]