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As refugee arrivals dwindle, resettlement agencies face cuts

As the Trump administration has sought to curtail the country’s refugee program, local resettlement agencies have been forced to make cuts and are struggling to keep their programs afloat.

“We live a little bit on a roller coaster, and yet we are trying very hard to just maintain stability here . . . ” said Maxine Stein, president and chief executive of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts. “A lot is up in the air, frankly.”

Many agencies receive most of their funding on a per-capita basis from the federal government, and far fewer refugees have made their way to the United States this year. (The country hit a 50,000-person limit last week). A ruling by a federal judge in Hawaii on Thursday allowed certain refugees keep coming to the United States, but overall numbers for this fiscal year will still fall below the resettlement agencies’ expectations.


As a result, Massachusetts agencies have scaled back staff and programs — and some have considered shuttering their resettlement branches entirely.

“There’s a point where you can only take so few refugees and be able to sustain your program,” said Marjean Perhot, the director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Boston.

Once a refugee lands on US soil, resettlement agencies become the first line of support. Case workers and volunteers pick up arrivals at the airport, take them to housing that the agencies have helped to secure, and spend the ensuing months helping to acclimate refugees to life in America.

When he was president, Barack Obama set the cap at 110,000 refugees for the year ending in September 2017, and resettlement agencies set their budgets accordingly.

But President Trump has pushed to dramatically cut the number of refugees allowed into the country After several legal challenges, the Supreme Court reinforced his 50,000 ceiling for refugees and ruled that beyond that cap, only refugees with a “bona fide relationship” to a US entity would be allowed entry.


As the Trump administration and the courts wrangled over the limitations, refugee arrivals slowed.

In Massachusetts, monthly arrivals fell from 176 in October to 73 in May — leaving resettlement agencies with crippling budget shortfalls.

The organizations receive an initial sum of $950 per refugee from the federal government to support operations, plus grants to finance specific services.

Directors across the state said that this funding is critical to sustaining their programs.

“Private support does not make up for federal support,” said Angela Bovill, Ascentria Care Alliance’s chief executive. “When you take out the underpinning that is the federal government support . . . the program is hamstrung.”

With private dollars unable to fill budget holes, some directors have been left with no choice but to lay off staff, they said.

Government funds make up three-fourths of the International Institute of New England’s $1.27 million resettlement budget, and CEO Jeffrey Thielman said he has cut at least four full-time positions to offset a 21 percent reduction in funding.

Ascentria, which receives all of its core resettlement budget from the government, eliminated 17 positions in Massachusetts after a $611,000 shortfall.

And Perhot has reduced her staff of four case workers to two — placing a heavy burden on the remaining staffers, who also handle cases for other categories of migrants.

“We would not have made this type of reduction if we didn’t have a loss of federal funds,” Perhot said.


The Trump administration’s policies affect not only refugees waiting to travel to the United States, but those already living here. Many agencies employ former clients, whose cultural knowledge and personal experience often make them the best-equipped to provide services to new arrivals, Stein said. Her organization has transferred some staffers to other programs to keep them on the payroll, she said, but layoffs might be inevitable if the number of arrivals remains low.

A State Department spokeswoman wrote in a statement that the department has discussed the impact of changes in the refugee admissions program with agencies’ national organizations.

“We recognize the challenges they have faced this year, and value their ongoing partnership,” the spokeswoman said.

The federal court ruling in Hawaii last week expanded the number of refugees eligible to enter the United States past the 50,000 ceiling by extending the definition of a “bona fide relationship” to include extended family members and established agreements with resettlement agencies.

The Trump administration is challenging that decision in court.

While resettlement groups cheered the ruling, it applies only to refugees who had already been “assured” by agencies — meaning that they have been vetted and an agency has signed a written guarantee to receive them.

IINE, which services New Hampshire and Massachusetts, has 23 “assured” clients in the pipeline, Thielman said.

Even with this uptick, total arrivals will be nearly 200 refugees short of the agency’s original FY17 forecast.


“It will get us a little bit higher,” Thielman said. “It’s not going to be a dramatic change for us.”

It’s unclear how many refugees who are in the pipeline have extended family in the United States. Regardless, with fewer entering the country than expected — and speculation that Trump may renew the 50,000 cap next fiscal year — the agencies have had to make difficult calculations about the future.

“If the number of refugees will be staying at 50,000 for the next three years or so, then agencies are going to have to seriously look at how they will realistically be able to do resettlement,” Perhot said.

Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of the national resettlement organizations that supported Ascentria, terminated its operations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in April as arrival numbers slipped. And Perhot said that Catholic Charities’ Boston resettlement branch may need to close — although she said she hopes it won’t come to that.

If the federal government restores its refugee program to prior levels down the line, agencies that scaled back their operations may find themselves unable to meet the renewed demand. Training new employees for this kind of work takes time, Perhot said.

“You’re losing a ton of capacity if agencies are forced to close their doors,” she said.

“You can’t just turn around on a dime if you really, really gut this program.”

Claire Parker can be reached at claire.parker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.