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Resettlement agencies shrink amid refugee program cuts

Layoffs expected this week as fewer refugees come into the country


World Relief helps furnish a home for refugees in Spokane, Wa. Photo by Viktoriya Aleksandrov/World Relief

Resettlement agencies shrink amid refugee program cuts

WASHINGTON—U.S. refugee resettlement agencies are downsizing under President Donald Trump’s plan to admit fewer asylum-seekers than his predecessor.

While federal courts weigh the future of Trump’s executive order pausing the refugee program and barring travel from select countries, refugee resettlement agencies know one thing for sure: Fewer refugees will enter the United States this year than last year.

Part of Trump’s order not facing a legal challenge lowered the total number of refugees admitted to the United States to 50,000, down from the Obama administration’s 110,000 estimate for 2017. With less work to go around, resettlement agencies are closing offices and laying off employees.

“We have too much capacity to serve at this point, and we don’t have the financial recourses to sustain that,” said Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization.

World Relief plans to lay off staff and close several offices across the country this year. Soerens told me decisions are not final, but unless the president changes his order, the relief organization will announce cuts by the end the week.

As a Christian non-governmental organization, World Relief gets private donations but also receives federal dollars to assist with the government’s resettlement program. With fewer refugees coming in, the government will send much less money to resettlement agencies.

Nine organizations contract with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. Each year, World Relief works with about 10 percent of the persons admitted. With the previous limit of 110,000, World Relief scaled up operations to prepare to help about 12,000 refugees this year. After Trump lowered the limit, World Relief expects it might resettle about half that number.

Every year since 1980, the president tells the State Department how many refugees to accept from each region of the world. Obama’s decision to admit 110,000 marked the highest ceiling in decades—a 57 percent increase compared to 2015.

The United States has not always resettled the number of refugees authorized by the president. Only about 20,000 refugees came into the country in 2002 following security changes after the 9/11 terror attacks. But Trump’s proposed limit of 50,000 is the lowest set by any president since 1980.

The gradual increase in refugees after 9/11 allowed agencies to hire more staff, open new offices, and develop a broader network and infrastructure to resettle persons coming into the United States.

Soerens told me the biggest loss will be World Relief’s uniquely qualified staff members: “There’s not that many Christians who speak Somali.”

Lavinia Limón, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), told me she has not made any cuts yet but expects to downsize later this year. Limón does not expect a dramatic change because USCRI anticipates fluctuations in resettlement needs: “The program always waxes and wanes depending on what’s going on in the world and how the administration wants to handle it.”

Last year, the Obama administration resettled nearly 85,000 refugees, and USCRI worked with about 12,000 of them. Fiscal 2017 started in October, and the government already has processed about 34,000 new entries, leaving few remaining spots under the new Trump limit.

Limón said both Trump and Hillary Clinton were explicit about their plans for the refugee program, so the lowered limit did not come as a shock. But that doesn’t make the reality any easier.

“That sounds like a lot of people, but 50,000 wouldn’t fill up most NFL stadiums on a Sunday,” Limón said. “I’m the president and CEO. I’m responsible for making payroll every two weeks. It’s something I take very seriously. But on the other hand, something I take even more seriously is the well-being of these persecuted people who will no longer be able to take refuge here.”


Evan Wilt Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.

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