Entire System of Refugee Resettlement Nonprofits Teeters on the Edge

February 20, 2017; WisContext

“I hereby proclaim that the entry of more than 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017 would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I determine that additional admissions would be in the national interest.”

—“Executive Order 13769: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” President Donald Trump, January 27th, 2017

The United States was slated to receive 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, so this cuts that flow in half. So far, it has taken in in 32,954 since October 1, 2016, which means that just over 17,000 additional refugees will be allowed into the U.S. through the end of September. A four-month hiatus on accepting new refugees is now in place.

This is one part of Trump’s trio of executive orders on immigrants and refugees that was not stayed. It has shut down the pipeline for refugees and the $2,000 that is paid to refugee resettlement groups to help each individual, and that makes sustainability for these critical agencies pretty difficult.

Last week, World Relief, one of nine large refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., declared it would lay off 140 staff members (20 percent of its U.S.-based staff) and close five local offices in Boise, Columbus, Miami, Nashville, and Glen Burnie. In a statement, the nonprofit declared that the move was “a direct result of the recent decision by the Trump Administration.” The other eight networks are also considering their options in the face of a very unstable funding environment.

This, of course, should create concern, because once those elements of infrastructure are gone, rebuilding them and their local relationships will create untold additional cost and delays. “It will impact all nine resettlement agencies, so the infrastructure for refugee resettlement in our country—built over decades, at least since the Refugee Act of 1980—could be decimated,” Matthew Soerens of World Relief said.

While some of the networks are launching fundraising campaigns to try to maintain their services, raising enough to replace federal dollars may be a real long shot, even for a system at relative rest. For instance, in 2015, approximately $42 million of World Relief’s $62 million budget was federal grants.

In many cases, the agencies may be national, but their offices are local. These local satellites do the real work of helping refugees gather necessary documentation and assisting them in finding housing, job training, and public benefits. But all in the system recognize the system as a public-private partnership, and when the federal government shuts down their pipeline, the whole system freezes, creating a very serious situation.

Keeping hundreds of NGO staff on salary (or deciding when to give them notice) while the system is suspended is a “big problem,” said [Bill Canny, executive director of the U.S. Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)], whose organization works with 80 Catholic charities. “These are all non-profit agencies that don’t have vast cash reserves.”

As a result, all over the country, capacity is being eroded even as activists attempt to block Trump’s plans. In Omaha, Henry Cordes reports that:

In response, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, the state’s largest refugee resettlement agency, announced Friday it is cutting the jobs of 15 refugee resettlement workers, seven of whom will be reassigned to other jobs within the agency.

The Refugee Empowerment Center has already laid off two workers, declined to fill a third open position and expects additional layoffs. Its board is currently looking at a revised budget that will be down one-third from the one it had a year ago

In Detroit, all four local resettlement agencies face an eroded future:

Following the executive order, Samaritas, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Detroit and Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County could see an estimated loss of three-quarters or more of the approximately $4 million in total federal dollars they would have received before the new limits were put in place.

Beyond the financial strife, the agencies are concerned that if they lose employees possessing specialized language and cultural awareness skills, they may be tough to replace.

The scene in Michigan is complicated by the fact that in the past five years, most of the refugee placements have been of people coming from the seven countries named in the travel ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Steve Tobocman, the executive director of Global Detroit, which promotes immigration as an economic development strategy, says that the infrastructure there has been “second to none.”

“We know that immigrants and refugees have significant entrepreneurship rates, bring a diversity of skills needed for local business to compete and grow and add diversity to our local economy,” Tobocman said.

“This isn’t an enterprise you start up overnight. It requires years of work to get it right,” said William Blaul, director of institutional advancement for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. “It’s very difficult to start up, shut down, start up, shut down—that’s one of our struggles with this (order).”

In some cases, agencies are trying to hold onto employees with necessary language and cultural skills by redeploying them into new jobs where the organization deals with more than resettlement. Still, even in those circumstances, the writing may be on the wall.

Executive Director Anya Abramzon of Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, Michigan, says she and her organization “are at the point where we might have to lose all of it.”

About half of the agency’s 60 employees provide resettlement and additional services for refugees such as English as a second language, health screenings and employment and training assistance.

The nonprofit, which operates on a $2.8 million budget, expects the suspension to translate to a loss of $50,000-$60,000 per month, she said. It’s working hard to find additional resources to bridge the pause in refugee activity and sustain the programs.

As Abramzon asks, “The question is: Is this just 2017, or is this business as usual going forward? I think it’s important for all of us to know that.” Unfortunately, by the time that question is answered, it may be moot for some of the agencies involved.—Ruth McCambridge