Eight years ago, John Giri, a refugee from Bhutan, came to the U.S. and then turned around to help others settle in this country.
After working for a tortilla company in Atlanta, he landed a job as an interpreter for World Relief, the same evangelical Christian organization that had helped him adapt to life in the U.S. after almost 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.
“I came as a refugee—I know the process,” he said, reflecting on six years working with World Relief. “I have been through all the difficulties of life in a refugee camp and know what it is to be a refugee.”
Giri, a Baptist, was eventually promoted to case manager.
But all that came to a screeching halt in March 2017, when Giri and nine of his coworkers were abruptly laid off.
“I was angry—emotionally harmed,” he said, adding that it took months to find another job. But while he acknowledged initial frustration with his employer, he also expressed ire toward another source.
“My frustration was (also) over the change of policies and change in government,” he said. Giri is one of hundreds of resettlement workers who have lost their jobs over the past year—many, refugees themselves.
Refugee aid groups have conducted massive layoffs and office closures ever since the Trump administration began issuing various versions of a travel ban, limiting entry to the United States from certain countries. The groups have been left on the hook for empty apartments and have had to explain to interested churches why they can’t bring refugees to their areas. And many refugee advocates have expressed concern over how long it will take the groups to come back from those cuts, if they can at all.
Trump administration officials said in late January they would once again allow refugees from countries included in the bans—which have accounted for more than 40 percent of refugee admissions over the last three years, according to State Department data—so long as the newcomers undergo additional vetting.
President Trump has also reduced the total number of refugees who will be admitted into the U.S., from 110,000 in fiscal 2017—a bar set by former President Obama—to 45,000 in fiscal 2018, which started in October. And agencies say they aren’t even on track to settle that number: Just over 6,000 had come to the country in the last three months.
Hidden behind these figures is the decimation of an expansive refugee resettlement apparatus composed largely of faith-based nonprofit organizations that have partnered with the federal government for decades. Of the nine groups helping refugees find a home in America, six claim a religious affiliation: World Relief, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church World Service, HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Episcopal Migration Ministries.
Historically, these groups are contracted by the government to help take in refugees after they undergo a lengthy application and vetting process that involves several agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. (The placement of families is determined on a weekly basis through consultation between the State Department and the resettlement groups.)
Once people are brought to the U.S., resettlement groups authorized annually by the State Department typically provide new arrivals with housing and food, as well as long-term assistance for achieving self-sufficiency such as help finding jobs, learning English, and often becoming permanent U.S. residents or citizens.
But leaders of these groups say the Trump administration’s new policies are hobbling their operations and hurting those they serve. They’re fighting back and finding hope in a groundswell of support from people of faith, but the future remains uncertain.
“I don’t know how long it will take to undo the damage that has been done,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief.
The impact on the resettlement program by the policy changes is difficult to calculate. Each organization is structured differently and many partner with independent local groups for on-the-ground efforts.
Even so, a Reuters report from Feb. 14 found that these agencies are preparing to shutter more than 20 offices in the coming year, and the agencies’ data highlight a pattern of downsizing in the aftermath of the initial ban.
- World Relief, which generally takes in about 10 percent of refugees entering the U.S., announced within weeks of the initial ban that it would lay off more than 140 employees—about one-fifth of its U.S.-based staff—and close five of its local offices.
- HIAS reported it is in the process of closing two sites—one in Los Angeles and another in Chicago—and has halted plans to open others.
- A Church World Service official said the small band of national-level staff under its purview remains largely intact but predicted all of its partner offices will have to lay off at least one employee in 2018. (An April 2017 Voice of America investigation counted at least 17 layoffs across the organization.)
- USCCB officials said they are still deciding how to move forward but already expect to close about 15 sites this year, shifting from 75 to as few as 60. Catholic Charities, the primary affiliate for the USCCB’s on-the-ground resettlement work, said that of the 700 full-time employees across its network who work on refugee resettlement, more than 300 are estimated to see a temporary layoff, permanent layoff, or possible reassignment due to the refugee ban.
- An April 2017 report from the Episcopal News Service said the Episcopal Church would cut its 31-member affiliate network by six in 2018.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service said it had not closed any sites, though before she resigned last week as its president and CEO, Linda Hartke confirmed the agency has made staff reductions at its headquarters.
Banner news editor: This article has been edited for length. Read the full report at Religion News Service.
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