Triad refugee agencies adjust to drastic reduction in new arrivals

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Katherine Reynolds of Church World Service Greensboro said the most impactful aspect of Trump's executive order is the new cap on refugee arrivals. (photo by Jordan Green)

Three local refugee-resettlement agencies are forced to downsize in response to an executive order by President Trump that cuts the number of refugees accepted by the United States from 110,000 to 50,000.

World Relief High Point/Winston-Salem has already laid off about 20 percent of its staff. North Carolina African Services Coalition expects to cut staff hours by 30 to 50 percent. And Church World Service Greensboro is looking to renegotiate its lease for less office space to reduce costs.

The three Triad refugee resettlement agencies have been forced to abruptly downsize as a result of a little discussed provision in President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order that reduces the number of refugees accepted in the United States from 110,000 to 50,000 per year.

The federal courts have placed a hold on major sections of the executive order, including a 120-day freeze on refugee admissions, indefinite suspension on admission of Syrian refugees, a 90-day ban on arrivals from seven Muslim-majority nations and priority for religious minorities. On Monday, the president issued a revised executive order reinstating the 120-day freeze on refugee admissions while reducing the number of countries subject to a 90-day suspension on arrivals by one (Iraq, the United States’ ally in the fight against Islam State, has been dropped from the list.

But for refugee resettlement agencies, the order to reduce the overall number of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000, which has gone unchallenged in the courts, might be the most impactful.

“This is the part they couldn’t enjoin,” said Katherine Reynolds, immigration legal services program coordinator at Church World Service Greensboro. “It’s totally constitutional, but it’s inhumane.”

The United States was on track to admit a record number of refugees this year, before Trump’s election upended refugee resettlement, along with so much else in the international and domestic order. Refugee admittance was previously capped at 85,000, but Reynolds said for several years the actual number reached only 60,000 or 65,000. The federal government had hired additional staff to vet refugees and in the 2015 fiscal year, the United States met its target of 85,000 for the first time, and President Obama increased the cap to 110,000. Resettlement agencies set their annual budgets based on the 110,000 number for the new fiscal year, which began a month before the election.

“All of the refugee resettlement agencies’ budgets come from government contracts,” Reynolds said. “We’re all having to cut our budgets. If the nationwide budget is cut in half, that means all of our offices are getting fewer people and therefore fewer dollars.”

World Relief’s national leadership elected to close five offices around the country, including agencies in Miami; Nashville, Tenn.; Boise, Idaho; Columbus, Ohio; and Anne Arundel County, Md., to adjust to the loss of revenue from contracts with the State Department and Department of Health and Human Services for refugee resettlement. All of the offices that were closed were in locations where there was another refugee resettlement agency, said Jennifer Foy, executive director of World Relief High Point/Winston-Salem.

“The choice was, do we shrink and kind of hobble every office or do we close a couple of offices and keep the remaining offices stronger,” Foy said. “We have pretty good leadership. I trust them. I feel like at the time of the election we knew we were going to take the hit; we just didn’t know what it was going to look like. We had multiple contingency plans.”

Reynolds and other agency leaders in the Triad note that Trump’s decision to close the door on refugees comes at a time of acute humanitarian crisis around the world. The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, reports that due to war and persecution the number of displaced persons hit an all-time high of 65.3 million in 2015. The UNHCR considers 16.1 million of them to be refugees, not counting 5.2 million Palestinians.

The war in Syria produced 4.9 million registered refugees in 2015. Turkey hosted 2.5 million people in refugee camps, with another 4.4 million residing in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Germany received 441,900 asylum claims from people seeking the opportunity to resettle — the most of any country in the world — in 2015, while the United States resettled the most people, followed by Canada and Australia.

Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia account for more than half of the world’s refugees. Syrians and Congolese currently represent the largest share of the refugee population resettled in Greensboro by Church World Service, Reynolds said. Her agency also continues to receive refugees from Burma, Eritrea and Iraq.   

“The number of refugees in the world is huge — 16 million,” said Million Mekonnen, executive director of North Carolina African Services Coalition in Greensboro. “It is not only the United States that is receiving a large number of refugees. Refugees need protection. It is a moral obligation for anyone that has the capacity to help. Every refugee spends a significant amount of time in a camp. No one wants to be a refugee. I think this executive order came at the wrong time.

“The United States’ refugee resettlement program is the most sophisticated resettlement program in the world,” he added. “We can do a lot better than we are right now.”

Both African Services Coalition and Church World Service are running GoFundMe campaigns to raise money to pay for support services that would normally be funded through federal dollars attached to each new arrival.

Jennifer Foy, the executive director of World Relief High Point/Winston-Salem, said she doesn’t think it’s likely that Trump will reverse his decision to reduce the ceiling on refugee arrivals.

During a June 2016 campaign stop in Greensboro, Trump heaped scorn on opponent Hillary Clinton’s plan to increase the number of refugees from Syria, characterizing it as reckless and unsafe while drawing attention to the Afghan-American perpetrator of the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., who was born in the United States to immigrant parents.

The perpetrators of at least two recent attacks have been identified in media accounts as Somali refugees, including 18-year-old Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who rammed a crowd of people with a car and then stabbed them on the campus of Ohio State University in November, and 22-year-old Dahir Adan who attacked people with a knife in a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minn. in September.

“My personal opinion is that I think we’re safer allowing refugees in,” Foy said. “If you look at a refugee camp and there’s a million people in the refugee camp and they see the United States saying, ‘We’re helping, we’re coming,’ that’s going to build goodwill. If they see us saying, ‘No, there might be a terrorist among you,’ that’s not going to build goodwill.”

While local agency leaders are under no illusion that Trump is open to lifting the ceiling, all three are loudly expressing their disagreement with the policy and urging supporters to contact members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

“The humanitarian crisis is the worst the world had seen,” Foy said. “It doesn’t seem right. The crisis is only getting worse, and the United States is stepping back and saying, ‘We’re going to do less.’ That’s not right. As one of the most powerful nations in the world, shouldn’t our humanitarian assistance increase as the need grows?”

Mekonnen added, “We are in a good position to resettle more than 50,000. We have the proper structure. We have the moral responsibility to welcome more refugees. We need to remind our elected officials that this is a humanitarian issue. This number needs to increase. We are encouraging community members to call senators and representatives to remind them that the United States has a tradition of welcoming people from around the world.”

Reynolds put it another way.

“At this point silence is complicity,” she said. “You can’t sit back and say, ‘I support refugees, but I’m not going to do anything.’ You need to let your elected officials know that you are in support of this.”

  • CD

    Thank god! It’s about time that these do gooders are humbled. The majority of us do not want these “refugees” in our communities. Arab countries need to take them in.

  • Andrew J. Young

    For many years I have been a critic of refugee resettlement agencies, but not because I am anti-refugee. The history of these agencies is long and complicated. Locally, they have done some very strong work but their efforts and initiatives have been tied into the larger Greensboro culture of lots of organizations but limited collaboration, of a patchwork of services that have been based more on what’s available or fundable and less on what individuals, families and communities need. The important social work these organizations do is unquestioned, but it can’t hide the fragility of the resettlement process as has been carried out in our area. When Lutheran Family Services up and left several years back it triggered a mass gathering of partners and stakeholders to rethink the system. But important changes never took hold and many of the resettlement problems that sank the LFS boat continue.

    Despite Trump and a loud bunch of anti-immigrant supporters, I believe there are things we can do in our area to not lose the talent and skills of those being let go from the resettlement agencies, improve the local resettlement process and strengthen newcomer individuals, families and communities. There’s a lot of grief, rage and frustration going on that mask some of the fundamental work that many have never felt at ease doing, or haven’t the skills, contacts or interest. But while memories of the Great Recession still linger and with non-stop Trump tweeting keeping everyone awake, maybe it’s time for another mass gathering.

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