Through sound management and luck of the draw, Summit County’s two refugee resettlement agencies are likely to survive President Donald Trump’s crackdown on legal immigration, for now.
Trump has declared that America will take no more than 45,000 refugees this year, down from about 53,000 admitted in the fiscal year that ended in September. In actuality, refugee admissions are on track to hit 21,200, the lowest annual figure for any year since the State Department launched the resettlement program in 1980 — lower even than a drastic dip in 2002 after 9/11.
But it’s not just numbers that are driving some agencies to close offices or curtail programs. It’s who the agencies have served in the past that is determining whether they’ll receive more — or any — refugees today.
Some nonprofit agencies in America have expected five times more refugees than they’ve received so far, forcing another round of adjustments, branch office closings in some major cities and staffing cuts as steep as 30 percent or more last spring.
But, looking ahead, immigration advocates are concerned about federal priorities shifting away from the humanitarian mission of reuniting families from war-torn countries — a policy of letting families help newcomers assimilate — ultimately reducing the need for government assistance and the potential for radicalization. Instead, immigration advocates see an emerging emphasis on the economic impact and security risk refugees pose for America.
Luck of the draw
At World Relief Akron, four Bhutanese refugees who joined their families last month sat down for some occupational advice Friday morning.
The faith-based nonprofit agency, located in an old Presbyterian church in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood, has settled 50 refugees since October — all but two from the dwindling refugee camps in Nepal. These refugees from southeast Asia haven’t been banned from entering America by the Trump administration.
Director Kara Ulmer said her office, part of a national network that closed five locations and cut staff by 25 percent in the spring, is on track to resettle 195 refugees by the end of September, an increase of 70 from last year.
But a sister office in Wisconsin and another in North Carolina haven’t been so lucky. Each has received less than five refugees since October. The Somalis and Sudanese they normally help are now banned by Trump’s immigration edicts.
This makes for winners and losers among Midwestern cities where mayors are turning to immigrants to reverse population decline and grow local economies.
“Your first job in the United States will not be your last,” said Anna Beth Walters, a World Relief worker visiting the Akron office to help the 3-year-old local branch set up a jobs program. Samuel Sinchuri, an interpreter and case worker, relayed Walters’ advice to the four Bhutanese refugees, who expressed a desire to take any job they can get.
One refugee, Bhakta Bista, said he still has family in Nepali camps, where rain falls indoors and elephants trample huts while people sleep.
Working with less
In North Hill at the International Institute of Akron, admissions are down this year — but that was expected.
IIA resettled nearly 800 people last year. This year, acting Director Madhu Sharma anticipates 350, which reflects a national decline in admissions.
By budgeting so many refugees, IIA and World Relief Akron have avoided calamity. In December, the State Department said any resettlement agency not taking at least 100 refugees this year will get none. The move is unprecedented. In previous years, the federal government did not force individual admission goals, only a national ceiling on arrivals.
All of the remaining 22 World Relief offices have all budgeted more than 100 refugees, though some have seen only a trickle.
Nine national organizations oversee every local resettlement agency.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants governs secular agencies like IIA. World Relief Akron, which trimmed 30 percent of staff last spring, takes direction from World Relief Corp. Together, the parent organizations decide which refugee vetted by the State Department goes where, often sending Bhutanese to Akron where they find support from the 10,000 or so who have settled or moved here after landing somewhere else.
But there’s a policy shift brewing. Instead of coming to communities where family members are already living, working and going to school, new family arrivals could find themselves scattered and isolated.
“Successful resettlement requires genuine integration,” Sharma said. “It takes time, but what always leads to success is having a family to join in helping you in that pathway to being accepted in your community and to learning the ins-and-outs of living in the United States.”
Sharma and Ulmer say family reunification, along with Akron’s welcoming posture toward immigrants, has been key in keeping local refugee numbers relatively steady.
More broadly, federal immigration policy is replacing family reunification with an emphasis on newcomers’ skills and likely economic benefits. Ulmer isn’t sure where refugees will fit in that new equation. And overall, she says she’s confused about why refugees are regarded with such suspicion by the president and his supporters.
“Refugees fit every criteria that the administration is saying that they want. Economic benefit, assimilation, entering into our culture, paying taxes, not being on welfare.
“And yet it’s the easiest, most controlled program. And so it’s the easiest to switch it off.”