US refugee resettlement program has been nearly dismantled, advocates say
Sura has spent much of her life fleeing wars and waiting to find a place to permanently call home. Her family fled Baghdad in 2007, resettling in Syria. Then they sought refuge in Turkey, where they started the arduous screening process to be resettled in the United States as refugees.
Nearly three years later, Sura and her younger brother received the OK. Then President Trump issued a ban preventing people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, and she was again in limbo, forced to wait two months while her situation was sorted out.
“It was so frustrating. You’re waiting almost three years to get to the United States — or anywhere — to start your life and then something happens and ‘Oh, you have to stay,’ ” said the 27-year-old, who studied dentistry in Syria and has now been in the United States nine months. “But I was lucky.”
The country’s refugee resettlement program has been all but dismantled in the year since Trump first issued his travel ban and temporarily barred all refugees from entering the United States, immigration advocates and attorneys said Monday.
The “We Are All America Roundtable,” held Monday, was a review of the effects of the bans, hosted by the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. It included refugee resettlement agencies, legal experts, advocacy groups, and city, state, and congressional staff members.
Sura, who declined to give her last name out of concern for her safety, hopes that she and her younger brother will be reunited with the rest of their family. Her parents, her older brother and his family did not qualify for the United Nations’ migration program.
Trump’s first executive orders pertaining to immigration and border security suspended refugee admissions for 120 days and introduced new security screening measures.
In October, he capped the number of refugees allowed into the country this fiscal year at 45,000 — the lowest number since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. The orders have faced legal challenges, and the Supreme Court has taken up the third version of the ban.
“Like every nation, the United States has the right to control who enters our country and to keep out those who would do us harm,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in March about the revised executive order. “We also know that people seeking to support or commit terrorist attacks here will try to enter through our refugee program.”
But a local group that advocates for stricter controls on legal immigration disagrees.
“The US is not doing their fair share around refugees,” said Steve Kropper, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, which calls for reducing legal immigration and increasing enforcement. “Diplomatic efforts and sometimes military efforts to allow people to stay in their countries is our first obligation, but the current administration cares little about diplomacy.”
Immigration advocates and attorneys said Monday that only about 21,000 refugees will be resettled this fiscal year, which runs from October to September — less than half the number allowed — because of changes to the program.
Only 5,323 refugees were allowed into the country during the first three months of this fiscal year, according to federal officials. Massachusetts was allocated 955 refugee placements this fiscal year but expects to resettle just 650 people, down from 1,777 in 2016, according to advocates.
“By this time last year, the program had actually started to be decimated,” said Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities of Boston. “Now, it really is quite decimated.”
Perhot said she started 2017 with a staff of six and now has a staff of two, a caseworker and program manager. They have worked on only seven refugee cases — three Ethiopian Christians and four children from El Salvador.
“Each time one arrives it’s a miracle, especially now,” Perhot said. “I used to say, oh, it’s always a miracle when a refugee gets through this system that is very cumbersome and very lengthy. Now it truly, truly is because very few are getting in.”
Lisa Ann Brennan, program director for Ascentria Services for New Americans in Worcester, told the group that her organization faces a situation similar to that of Catholic Charities, saying there is “a severe reduction in the number of arrivals.”
For example, she said, in 2016 the Worcester office resettled 276 people, the next year 133 people, and as of October, four people.
“As much as we are devastated by the impact on our programing and our staffing, we’re devastated for the families for whom their dreams shattered, essentially,” she said.
The two programs are having differing experiences with the community response to refugees. Perhot said that interest in hosting refugee families is at an all-time high, but Brennan cited an increase in uncertainty.
“The rhetoric that we hear at the national level has severely impacted people’s openness and ability to feel comfortable and welcoming,” Brennan said.
Democratic US Senator Ed Markey of listened to those in the room and told the group the president’s decision to limit the number of refugees to 45,000 is “unconscionable.”
“It’s lower than even [in] the Reagan administration, where it never dipped below 67,000,” he said, adding that the limit set by the nation’s 40th president had been the lowest until now.
That is why Markey said he joined an effort by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, to raise the limit to 75,000 for next year.
The congressional resolution, which was introduced last week, said that “refugees are the most vetted travelers to enter the United States” and that “it would be an abdication of United States leadership” to resettle fewer than 75,000 people.