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Refugee program cuts take a toll on Colorado’s resettlement agencies 

Program in limbo

click to enlarge Mani Dahal says with fewer refugees, employer demand for workers is high. - COURTESY OF MANI DAHAL
  • Courtesy of Mani Dahal
  • Mani Dahal says with fewer refugees, employer demand for workers is high.
A decade after Mani Dahal, his wife and their two children arrived at the airport in Denver, the 47-year-old Bhutan native works at the same resettlement agency that helped him escape a refugee camp in Nepal, where he had lived for 16 years.

Dahal fled ethnic persecution in his South Asian homeland, immigrating to the U.S. in the midst of the Great Recession. Now the sustainability program manager at the African Community Center (ACC), Dahal says the problem for these refugees isn’t jobs — he says there are far more openings than people to fill them in metro Denver. Last year, ACC set up almost 400 refugees with jobs. But as those workers move up the ladder, employers struggle to find new recruits.

A May report from the state’s Office of Economic Security showed that for every $1 in refugee assistance, $1.68 is generated in state economic output. Most refugees join the workforce less than three months after they arrive in the U.S.

But there are difficulties now that Dahal didn’t have to face: the anxiety of waiting years overseas to gain approval for protected status, the sting of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the uncertainty over whether family members left behind will make it here.

“People get jobs within the first month of their arrival, but there’s an emotional kind of challenge, a lot of talk going around about immigration, immigrants and things like that that will probably not give a positive feeling to the new arrivals,” Dahal says. “I might feel like, ‘Maybe I was wrong to come to this country.’”

With President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy along the southwestern border now on hold, another of his administration’s policies is making ripples in communities all over the country. There are tens of thousands fewer refugees arriving in the country this year than at any other time since 1980, when the United States’ refugee resettlement program was established, according to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Before leaving office, President Barack Obama set the 2017 cap at 110,000 refugees. Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, titled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” cut that number in half.

This year, Trump set the cap at 45,000. But in reality, with less than 15,000 refugees accepted as of May 31, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is now on pace to reach less than half of that total, according to news reports. Normally, the total number falls no more than a few thousand short of the cap, but changes at the administrative level overseas, including a longer vetting process, have caused a shortfall unheard of since right after 9/11.

The cuts have had a dramatic effect on the refugee resettlement program from the administrative level down to local communities, says Cathy Verdier, volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Family Services’ Colorado Springs office. The office provided services to 111 refugees last year, and only 40 so far in 2018.

The organization, which has offices throughout Colorado and New Mexico, is one of nine national resettlement agencies that works with the federal government to set up refugees with housing, employment services, medical care, English classes and more. The Colorado Springs office sees a high percentage of refugees with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, from Iraq and Afghanistan. These visas are granted to people who work with the U.S. military, often as translators or interpreters, who would consequently face persecution in their home countries.

Verdier says that since the drastic change in the number of refugees coming through, the agency’s Colorado Springs office has seen a slight decrease in federal funding, but has mostly been able to make up for it with grant money and donations.

Another change Verdier had noticed earlier in the year was a lack of people interested in volunteering. “I think that [was] due to the fact that people think refugees aren’t coming,” she says. “They [didn’t] realize there’s still a need out there.”
Then the crisis at the border began making headlines, as Trump’s immigration policy separated thousands of children from their parents, placing parents in detention awaiting legal proceedings while children were housed in shelters. The recently rescinded policy impacted families seeking protection from persecution and gang violence in their home countries.

Verdier believes that’s why her lag in volunteers recently reversed: She had nine people sign up for this month’s training, but already has 30 signed up for next month. “That’s a very visible way of seeing how just the knowledge out in the public has affected us.”

At the ACC, Dahal helps refugees adjust to a new life in Denver. Managing Director Melissa Theesen says the agency has resettled 134 of the 400 refugees it had planned to accommodate this year. Two years ago, it resettled 581.

A lower cap can take a toll on agencies’ programs, Theesen says, because the amount of federal funding is partly determined on a per-person basis.

“The hard thing for organizations like ours is there’s sort of those minimum functions, that no matter if we get 100 or 400, we’re going to need just some basic functions happening here,” Theesen says. “So we’ve been leaning a lot more on private funding.”

The agency has shifted its focus to the refugees already here, Theesen says, and finding new ways to help them adjust. For example, ACC recently launched a privately funded bike-riding education program for refugee women.

There is a difference between refugees, who come through resettlement agencies, and asylees, such as the parents and children being separated at the border.

While refugees go through an extensive vetting process overseas, and must have their paperwork approved before entering the United States, asylum seekers ask for protection when presenting themselves at a port of entry or submit an application from within the U.S.

Refugees and asylees must meet the same requirements, set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act, including proving a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of nationality on the basis of race, religion, nationality or social group. While there’s a cap each year on refugees, there’s no official limit to the number of people who can receive asylum status each year.

Lutheran Family Services can’t provide services for asylees until they are approved for protected status, but Catholic Charities of Central Colorado’s Springs office often works with both refugees (after they’ve been in the U.S. for a year and can apply for green cards) and asylum seekers, including the parents and children separated at the border. Catholic Charities also helps refugees through the family reunification process, through which refugees’ family members overseas may sometimes join them in the U.S.

Eric Pavri is the director of family immigration services at Catholic Charities. He says his office hasn’t yet seen the full effect of the lowered refugee cap, because it usually works with refugees at least a year after they immigrate.

Pavri emphasizes that lower arrival numbers are about more than just the cap — they’re also a result of staffing cuts and directives from the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“There are sort of a million little ways that our immigration agencies — even if officially the law hasn’t changed or the policy hasn’t changed — have just been instructed to sort of slow things down,” Pavri says. “So this isn’t just a crackdown on undocumented immigrants or unlawful immigration, it’s a crackdown on people trying to do things the legal way.”

Like Catholic Charities, ACC helps refugees through the family reunification process, an area in which Dahal has also seen a major slowdown.

“Their families are back there in the refugee camp,” Dahal says. “We are serving this community and they come with all these questions, ‘When will my family come?’ ... And we don’t have the answer for them.”

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