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Recession Means Fewer Resources for Refugees, Struggling Amid Jobs Crisis

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Resettlement.jpgA Somali refugee family resettles in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Flickr, UNHCR)

Stan Delp, a 67-year-old retired teacher living in Lansdale, Penn., was sitting in church in June, 2008, when he noticed four unfamiliar black-haired men by him. He found they were new to the United States, having spent 11 years in refugee camp in Thailand. Delp’s church is not big — about 200 people regularly attend — but nevertheless it has helped 47 such refugees assimilate to life in the United States over the past two years. When Delp met the men, he decided to do his part. He helped them buy clothes at Kohl’s and taught them how to use a refrigerator. He searched for jobs for them, and ended up waking at 5 a.m. to drive one man to work for several months, then allowed him to move into his home. Now that he lives in a retirement home, the refugees, now friends, visit a few nights a week.

“It’s like being a dad to them, really,” Delp says. “It takes 14 years to get assimilated into American culture. That’s a long time.”

[Immigration1] In the United States, the refugee resettlement system has always worked largely thanks to the generosity of people like Delp, as a public-private partnership with volunteer services and government backing. But the recession is threatening the stability of the program and the availability of resources to refugees. The government has stepped up its contributions to help new refugee migrants adjust to American life, but provides just eight months of resources. With jobs scarce, the churches and community centers that help after then are stretched to the point of breaking.

The government is aware of the problem, but thus far has taken only small steps to ameliorate it. The State Department doubled the amount of money it gives private resettlement agencies to help refugees when they first come to the United States, from $900 to $1,800. That amount helps the groups provide services for refugees and fund-raise for additional aid money for up to 90 days after the refugee enters the country. But the State Department knows $1,800 is not enough to support a refugee for three months, particularly with the difficulty of finding work, a State Department official told TWI.

“Part of the philosophy of our program is for people to reach self-reliance as quickly as possible,” says the official. “It used to be that very often refugees would have found work by the time our period of responsibility is up, and that’s much less true now.”

The Obama administration authorized in September 2009 the admission of up to 80,000 refugees in the 2010 fiscal year, up from 75,000 admitted in the 2009 fiscal year. In the authorization, the administration acknowledged that the “recent economic downturn has presented new challenges for this and other humanitarian programs.” To address these problems, the National Security Council was tasked with determining what needs to be done to improve refugee resettlement in the U.S.

“The basic set-up of the program hasn’t been altered in many years,” National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang told the Los Angeles Times in June. “It was time to take a fresh look.”

A few policy improvements have been recommended so far. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation in March that would allow refugees to apply for green cards immediately upon entering the U.S. and adjust refugee resettlement grants annually based on inflation and the cost of living.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, commissioned a report on refugee resettlement and found the process often places an unfair burdens local communities. Called “Abandoned Upon Arrival,” Lugar argues in the opening of the July 21 report that the government should modify its funding and admittance numbers — either increasing funding of refugee resettlement programs or decreasing the number of refugees it admits — so high costs are not passed on to local communities.

“We must acknowledge the costs associated with this activity,” Lugar wrote in a July 20 letter formally requesting a Government Accountability Office investigation on the refugee resettlement process.

The idea of cutting down on refugee admissions is not appetizing, particularly at a time when the need is so high. Of 42 million people forced by conflict or persecution to move from their homes, 16 million need asylum or refugee status, according to a 2009 report from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Forcing refugees to wait in camps, which often cannot provide the same health and education services they could find in the U.S., can have a detrimental affect on them, says Susan Krehbiel, a vice president at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“It does become kind of a Catch-22,” Krehbiel says. “Some of the refugees have been in camps for 15 to 20 years. There are some human costs to delaying peoples’ resettlement.”

Still, Krehbiel says the current system struggles to serve the refugees it does admit, and relies too heavily on volunteer donations of time and money. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, established in 1980 as part of the Department of Health and Human Services, provides funding for up to eight months of cash and medical assistance, and refugee families may be eligible for additional money through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Medicaid.

The government also provides up to five years of employment services, supplemented by private programs. But with the sluggish economy, employment programs through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service have seem a marked difference in the speed of job searches among refugees, Krehbiel says. While in previous years 80 percent of refugees were employed within four months, the recession dropped that number to about 60 percent. It usually takes about a year to get 80 percent of refugees in the program hired, she says.

Janet Panning, a program director at two Pennsylvania Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service programs, says she has seen a significant decrease in employment opportunities for refugees. Recent anti-immigrant fervor hasn’t helped the situation, as some employers are hesitant to employ refugees because they think they could be illegal immigrants.

“People are very afraid of hiring people they think might be illegal or not have proper work documentation,” Panning says. “Sometimes employers that aren’t up on the law might be reluctant to hire a refugee because they might not have a green card.”

If they are not able to find employment, single people are in an especially bad situation after government cash assistance ends. Some refugees have struggled to support themselves and pay rent. Panning says she knows of several refugees who have become homeless over the years, but typically secondary issues beyond unemployment contribute to the problem.

Panning says she worked with one refugee who nearly became homeless after her family dispersed around the country. The woman had a war-related disability that was difficult to show to employers and kept her from working steadily, and eventually was placed in subsidized housing.

“She never went on the street, but it was through the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers that kept her in housing,” Panning says

The government has attempted to stave off homelessness among refugees. The State Department provided $5 million in emergency housing funding last year. For next year, the Department of Health and Human Services requested an additional $25 million from Congress for case management and emergency housing.

But local communities often take on that task as well. Delp charges a refugee $200 per month — “not even enough to cover utilities,” he laughs — to stay in his house while he stays in a local retirement home. He also helps a seven-person family pay the rent on a five-bedroom house nearby. (They were living in a two-bedroom apartment until he helped them move out a few weeks ago, Delp says.)

He says he and the other members of his church see helping the refugees as something they must do. “Those of us who have been given resources, it’s up to us to reach out to these people,” Delp says. “I can afford to reach out, so I want to help as much as I can.”

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