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Resettlement offices close as fewer refugees are allowed into the US

For 57 years, the Church World Service resettlement office in Richmond, Virginia, served thousands of refugees from around the world, helping them get their feet off the ground in the United States after fleeing dangerous conditions and persecution in their home countries. Some who passed through moved on once they settled in, while others came back to work at the office and assist fellow refugees.

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Priscilla Alvarez
CNN — For 57 years, the Church World Service resettlement office in Richmond, Virginia, served thousands of refugees from around the world, helping them get their feet off the ground in the United States after fleeing dangerous conditions and persecution in their home countries. Some who passed through moved on once they settled in, while others came back to work at the office and assist fellow refugees.

But now, amid the decline in the number of refugees being admitted, that office is closing at the end of the month -- the outcome of the administration's attempt to curb legal migration to the US and cripple the system set up to assist some of the world's most vulnerable populations.

Office closures are a new reality for agencies tasked with resettling refugees as the number of admissions has drastically dropped. All nine resettlement agencies who work with the State Department to place refugees have had to close offices or pause their placement programs -- chipping away at a system designed to not only place refugees but also help them integrate into communities across the country.

As of April 2019, around 100 offices have either closed entirely or suspended their refugee resettlement program, a third of offices nationwide, according to a Refugee Council USA report released this year.

"These past two years have been challenging for refugee resettlement offices across the country," wrote then-Virginia director of immigration and refugee program at the Church World Service, John Baumann, in a letter to staff and community partners in March. "As a nation that has always proudly led the world in numbers of refugees resettled, we are now receiving roughly a quarter of the 85,000 people that we resettled just three years ago."

Church World Service first paused its placement program in Richmond last November before deciding to close it entirely at the end of this month, as they had similarly done with an office in New York.

"All the while we were waiting and hoping that the refugee program would return to its more historic and compassionate level," said Roisin Ford, a regional director at Church World Service. "It didn't happen and it still hasn't happened."

The refugee cap, which dictates how many refugees may be admitted to the US, is discussed among several departments and agencies, and eventually approved by the President. Where as the cap has often been viewed as a goal to be reached, the actual number of refugees admitted has fallen short.

Last year, the administration set a refugee cap of 30,000, the lowest level since 1980, and significant shift away from the increasingly high caps placed under former President Barack Obama. In the last few years of Obama's presidency, the administration raised the refugee ceiling from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 amid the Syrian crisis.

As of August 2019, more than 28,000 refugees have been admitted to the US this fiscal year, according to figures from the Refugee Processing Center.

"We will continue to resettle the most vulnerable refugees, including those who have fled religious persecution, while prioritizing the safety and security of the American people," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.

While the administration is nearing the ceiling it imposed, the numbers are still very low when compared to recent years. In fiscal year 2016, for example, nearly 85,000 refugees were admitted to the United States.

The offices tasked with helping place those refugees have taken a hit as a result of the drastic drop in admissions, making it difficult to sustain themselves when fewer refugees are being admitted.

"You're really seeing an ongoing decimation of the refugee program," said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, one of the nine resettlement agencies.

World Relief has closed seven of its offices since 2017, as a result of the dwindling arrival numbers. They anticipate resettling around 2,400 refugees this fiscal year, down from the roughly 6,500 refugees World Relief placed in fiscal year 2016.

Uncertain future for programs

"It's been a particularly devastating year for Church World Service and really for everyone that cares for refugee resettlement," said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, another of the nine resettlement agencies.

Resettlement agencies help place refugees once they've been admitted to the US, introducing them to services, helping them get jobs, and familiarizing them with a new community. In some cases, the help offices provide can be as simple as showing individuals the local bus route or teaching them how to use the financial system.

But under the Trump administration, the resettlement program has been infused with uncertainty. Over the last two years, agencies have had to make adjustments like closing offices or pausing their placement programs, but another fiscal year with a low admission ceiling will further squeeze them, according to those involved in the process.

Earlier this summer, the Trump administration floated the possibility of admitting zero refugees next year during a meeting with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and the Pentagon, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

While the zero option received immediate pushback from some government officials, the possibility of a lower refugee cap is not lost on resettlement agencies preparing for upcoming admissions.

"It goes without saying that people don't get into resettlement work, especially at the local level, to be very wealthy and in the one percent," said Danielle Grigsby, interim director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 24 nongovernmental agencies focused on refugee protection.

"This is a passion project for most people and it's really been psychologically challenging to see the impact this prolonged state of certainty has had," Grigsby added.

Last week, senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services expressing concerns over the administration's approach to next year's refugee ceiling.

"We are increasingly disturbed by the administration's disregard for legal requirements, congressional intent, and the importance of refugee resettlement to our nation," the letter reads. The refugee cap requires consultation with Congress.

The State Department spokesperson said the determination is expected to be made by the end of the month, adding, "We do not discuss internal and interagency deliberations or communications involved in those deliberations."

The Church World Service Richmond office, one of the agency's 21 immigration and refugee program locations, saw a drastic drop in refugee admissions between fiscal year 2007 and 2019. Until fiscal year 2016, the number of arrivals hovered around 100, but started decreasing thereafter to only 5 arrivals so far this fiscal year, according to the group.

Those figures are alarming when put in the context of the rising number of refugees around the world. According to the United Nations refugee agency, in 2018, there were more than 20 million refugees.

Earlier this month, more than two dozen retired generals and admirals sent a letter to Trump urging him to sustain the program --in a show of how the refugee program not only serves humanitarian purposes but also national security.

"Further cuts would undermine commitments made to allies and partners on the ground, our national security missions overseas, and the domestic infrastructure here in the United States that supports the successful integration of refugees, including those who served alongside U.S. troops," the letter read.

The seeming dismantling of the refugee resettlement program is due, in part, to the State Department requiring some offices that had worked with more than one agency to only work with one, according to the council's report.

Resettlement agencies have also had to contend with the possibility that they may be cut from the process entirely, meaning they would stop receiving funding from the State Department to admit refugees. In 2018, the State Department indicated in its Notice of Funding Opportunity document that not all nine resettlement agencies would be funded in fiscal year 2019. In the end, all nine were funded, but the agencies are nervous the department might consider that again as they wait for the fiscal year 2020 notice.

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