Wall Street Journal
By Ian Lovett
May 12, 2017
Even though President Donald Trump’s travel ban has been put on hold, his administration is already reshaping the refugee-resettlement industry.
The Trump administration has cut the rate of refugee arrivals in half in the first months of the year, and charity organizations that settle refugees are slashing their budgets in response.
More than half of the nine agencies that are approved by the State Department to resettle refugees in the U.S. have already either laid off staff or frozen hiring. Some agencies have let hundreds of people go. Many are staging fundraising campaigns the help make up for lost federal funding, which is tied to new refugee arrivals but also supports programs for refugees already here.
“We’ve been asked by the State Department to cut our budget twice already,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that resettles refugees in the U.S. HIAS has instituted a hiring freeze. “You can’t manage a program like this.”
A State Department official said that the refugee ceiling is an upper limit, “not a mandatory target.” The pace of arrivals has been adjusted to levels “consistent with our operational capacity under available funding,” the official said.
In the last fiscal year, the federal government allocated more than $554 million for refugee admissions, and 84,994 refugees were resettled. More than $227 million of that money was distributed to the nine resettlement agencies, most of them religiously affiliated, that help newcomers adjust to the U.S.
Mr. Trump’s executive order, which has been put on hold by a federal judge, not only seeks to pause all refugee arrivals for four months, but also to cap the refugee ceiling at 50,000. It would be the lowest refugee ceiling since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, though actual refugee arrivals fell below 50,000 for several years under President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Refugees continue to arrive, but less than half as many make it into the U.S., on average, than under President Barack Obama. Between Jan. 20, when Mr. Trump took office, and May 7, 13,224 have been settled in the U.S., a rate of 122 a day. By contrast, 30,017 refugees entered under Mr. Obama between Oct. 1 and Jan. 19, a rate of 270 refugees a day.
The administration has appealed two federal court orders blocking the executive order from taking effect. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the Trump administration last week, asking for an explanation for the slowdown in refugee arrivals.
Resettlement agencies had been hoping 2017 would be a banner year. In September, before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, Mr. Obama announced he would raise the number of refugees allowed into the country to 110,000, the highest total since 1995. Many agencies began staffing up.
World Relief, one of the resettlement agencies, began adding case workers in the fall, expecting a huge influx of refugees. At the organization’s 25 offices, case workers shepherd refugees through all aspects of life in America. They pick them up at the airport; set up housing, complete with furniture and clothes; advise them on searching for jobs; and help enroll children in school.
However, each World Relief office has gone from settling between five and 15 families a week to one or two, said Matthew Soerens, the organization’s U.S. director of church mobilization.
The organization is now in the process of laying off around 150 people and closing five offices.
After a year without work, Rachel Cheng landed a job in December helping settle new refugees in the Atlanta area for World Relief. Three months later, Ms. Cheng was unemployed again.
“Out of 31 employees in our office, 10 of us lost our jobs,” said Ms. Cheng, 29 years old.
Some of those laid off were seasoned refugee case workers who speak multiple African or Asian languages and will be difficult to replace if the refugee ceiling is raised again, Mr. Soerens said.
“We’ve lost incredibly skilled people who have been serving refugees for decades,” Mr. Soerens said.
Some conservatives critical of federal spending on refugees are embracing the cuts.
“Refugee resettlement on a mass scale is simply morally wrong—it’s a misallocation of resources,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration into the U.S.
“The whole way we do refugee resettlement needs to be rethought,” he said. If defunding the resettlement agencies was “a step toward a complete change, then I support it,” he added.
The nine resettlement agencies contract much of the work settling new refugees out to hundreds of local affiliates. These organizations are paid $2,075 for each refugee they resettle, the majority of which goes directly to refugee assistance.
Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities, which settled more than 22,000 refugees last year on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said her organization would suffer an $8 million budget shortfall if Mr. Trump’s executive order were fully implemented.
Half of their 700 case-worker jobs across the country might be eliminated.
“It’s a moral obligation for us to care for those who are most vulnerable,” Ms. Markham said. “We’re trying to continue to do that in whatever way we can, but it’s become extraordinarily difficult.”
Many resettlement organizations have started fundraising campaigns to try to make up for lost revenue.
World Relief has launched a campaign to raise $3 million. The Episcopal Church already allocated $500,000 in emergency funds to help Episcopal Migration Ministries maintain as much of its staff as possible. A Middle Eastern restaurant has held several fundraisers to raise money for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, which partners with HIAS to resettle refugees and expects to lose roughly $300,000 as a result of the lower refugee arrivals.
With few new refugees arriving, resettlement agencies are struggling to find work for volunteers.
“A lot of people want to pick refugees up at the airport and be their friends,” Mr. Soerens said. “We don’t want 50 people for one arriving family.”
Jordan Golin, president of JFCS of Pittsburgh, said more volunteers are aiding established families, often helping them learn English. In some cases, three volunteers are assigned to a single family.
“At the same time we’re getting a big outpouring of support of people wanting to help out, very few refugees are coming in that they can actually help with,” Mr. Golin said.
Write to Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com