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America’s System for Resettling Refugees Is Collapsing

National resettlement agencies are closing offices and laying off staff in response to the decline in arrivals, leaving the future of the program in the balance.

Huda Muhammed, a career-development program coordinator at the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, Maryland. The IRC is one of nine organizations tasked with resettling refugees. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

BALTIMORE, Md.— A young girl hangs from a chair, swinging her legs and watching a fidget spinner spiral around her small finger. A couple huddles together, sifting through paperwork. A woman quietly speaks into her cellphone. A new life in America begins with quotidian routine here in this waiting room.

But the placid, ordinary moment at the International Rescue Committee’s office in Baltimore is vanishing in some areas of the country: Deep cuts by the Trump administration in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. annually has forced the IRC and eight other nonprofits that help those fleeing war, famine, and persecution to cut staff and close offices.

“There has been, over the last two years, a systematic dismantling of the refugee-resettlement infrastructure by the administration, either directly or indirectly,” said Emily Gray, the senior vice president of U.S. ministries at World Relief, one of the nine agencies.

“Every year,” added Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), another of the nine, “we have to plan based on the number the administration sets and imagine trying to run any program where you’re expecting 45,000 [refugees] and only 20,000 arrived.”

The numbers are even more stark than that: President Barack Obama raised the ceiling for refugee admissions in his final two years in office from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 amid the Syrian crisis, which was still a pittance in a world in which the United Nations refugee agency estimates that there are nearly 20 million refugees. The Trump administration set a new cap for refugee resettlement for fiscal year 2018 at 45,000 but, less than 30 days from the end of the fiscal year, has resettled only around 20,000, according to figures from the Refugee Processing Center.

Now Donald Trump is expected to either maintain that cap or lower it in the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1, and cut one or more agencies from the resettlement process altogether—all of which could lead to the collapse of a system built over many years to support the world’s most vulnerable people.

“This is an unprecedented level of change,” said Kay Bellor, the vice president for programs at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the largest of the nine agencies.

The IRC office in Baltimore, Maryland (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

At the IRC office in Baltimore, tucked away in a nondescript brick building off the side of a busy intersection, resettlement specialists walk families and individuals through the practical, and often confounding, necessities of life in America, like grocery shopping, job hunting, and housing. Each of the nine resettlement agencies has cooperative agreements with the federal government. They oversee or partner with local affiliates, working out of offices like these in Baltimore, to place and support refugees around the country. But with fewer refugees coming in, resources have begun to dwindle, requiring organizations to reassess the number of staff and offices they can afford to keep. All nine organizations tasked with resettling refugees have had to lay off staff or close offices, or some combination of the two.

Shortly before Trump took office, the agencies had begun to fret about how the administration might crack down on immigration, and refugees in particular, advocates told me. They got their answer in January 2017, when Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel to the U.S. by refugees and immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries, and calling for a 120-day suspension of the refugee program. The order, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” sparked protests across the country and elicited a host of legal challenges that eventually landed it in the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the travel ban.

Some refugee-settlement agencies reacted right away. The LIRS’s affiliates laid off about 100 staffers around the country between February and April of last year, Bellor said. LIRS soon followed suit at headquarters, dismissing almost 20, though not all were involved in refugee resettlement. Catholic Charities USA—which works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine resettlement agencies—has had eight of its offices close, said Lucas Swanepoel, the organization’s vice president of social policy. He added that an additional 14 will close by the end of this year, leaving approximately 50 offices available for resettlement efforts, down from 64. World Relief closed seven offices around the country, two of which were on the path to resettling refugees but hadn’t opened yet. The International Rescue Committee is closing, or has closed, three of its 28 offices, said Hans Van de Weerd, the vice president of U.S. programs at IRC. As staff is let go and offices are shut down, advocates worry there won’t be enough resources in the future to sustain the pace of refugee arrivals.

The IRC Baltimore office, for its part, has not had to make any changes thus far, but like other offices around the country, it’s seen a considerable drop in refugee arrivals. The office placed 900 refugees in 2016. This year, it expects to resettle 350, said Ruben Chandrasekar, the executive director of IRC Baltimore.

Inside the Baltimore IRC office (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

The government has for years relied on these agencies to place refugees around the country and provide services. Every year, the organizations and their local offices and affiliates will consult with communities to come to an agreement on how many refugees they can take. The groups then submit those figures to the State Department, which leads the resettlement effort and ultimately reviews and approves the proposals.

The government provides a $2,125 grant for each refugee to cover initial expenses like rent, food, and job services. The resettlement agencies provide services that span the gamut—from finding and furnishing housing to enrolling children in school to showing refugees different modes of public transportation. The goal is to help them assimilate as seamlessly as possible to life in America, which, for nearly all, is vastly different than that which they left behind in countries like Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Part of the current downsizing has come about as a result of a State Department order last December that said agency offices handling fewer than 100 refugees in fiscal year 2018 would not be authorized to resettle new arrivals. The department also warned that it expects to eliminate one or more agencies from the refugee-resettlement process in fiscal year 2019, effectively slimming down the resettlement operation—and reducing its ability to quickly staff back up, should a future administration expand the nation’s refugee ceiling.

“Every time an office has to shut its doors, the impact isn’t just about the initial people affected,” said Mary Giovagnoli, the executive director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 24 nongovernmental agencies focused on refugee protection. “Once that office has closed, the people with the expertise and the knowledge of working with particular groups have to find other jobs, find other work, and it’s not necessarily going to be in refugee resettlement. We start to lose the skills and capacity. The more you do that, the more you’re likely to lose the critical infrastructure.”

The IRC Baltimore office, which employs roughly 35 people, has deep experience in resettling people who have been deemed to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland, due to war, political repression, religion, ethnicity, or other factors.

There are the food specialists who talk to refugees about nutrition and nearby markets; career advisers who help them find their first job; caseworkers who walk them through benefits they’re eligible for. Integral to the operation are the relationships staffers maintain with members of the community to ensure arrivals have what they need to start a new life. In some cases, that’s become harder to do, because there simply aren’t enough refugees coming in.

Kiera McCarthy, an employment specialist at IRC Baltimore (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

“We have employers who have relied on us consistently for being able to provide really good workers who are going to stay excited about the work they’re doing, and we’re not able to fulfill the numbers they originally expected of us,” said Kiera McCarthy, an employment specialist at IRC Baltimore. “There’s been a lot of change of having to tell employers no, which is not something we’ve had happen before.”

It’s an alarming time for advocates precisely because the United States hasn’t always been hostile toward refugees. More than a decade after the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the modern federal refugee-resettlement program, the U.S. resettled 142,000 refugees, many of whom were displaced as a result of the Balkan War. Over time, admissions began to steadily decline, but the country continued to keep a high threshold. The last time there was a lull similar to what agencies are facing today came after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when admissions dropped to fewer than 27,000 in 2002; the George W. Bush administration maintained the ceiling at 70,000, however, far higher than the present level. The difference between then and now, advocates argue, is the attitude taken by the administrations.

“It’s not in response to an emergency,” Melanie Nezer, the HIAS senior vice president, said of the Trump cutback. “We have an administration whose philosophy is to shut our doors.”

The reason for the fewer arrivals remains unclear. Reports suggest changes in the vetting process are accounting for the decline in admissions. Last month, NBC reported that the FBI is overwhelmed with procedures that have slowed security reviews.

Emily Jan / The Atlantic

What remains true is that support for refugees is a bipartisan issue. Members of Congress have recently chimed in, relaying their concern about the lack of discussion between lawmakers and the administration about the refugee cap. In August, Senators Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein demanded that the administration continue collaborating with lawmakers to set a figure, as is custom.

Any day now, the administration will release the cap for fiscal year 2019 and announce the agencies that will be cut from the resettlement process. Both will likely have a tremendous impact on the infrastructure that supports refugee resettlement in the United States—and as a result, refugees like those in this paper-white waiting room, who came to the country for safety, may now have fewer places to find support.