GREENSBORO, N.C. — The shift at the snack plant starts at 7 a.m. In the early days, when the workers were still new to this country, they would take the bus from the far-flung neighborhoods of the city and the coriander air of apartment buildings where they sat on resin chairs and welcomed the evenings. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Ethiopian, Somali, Burmese, Bhutanese, all so optimistic and bewildered and willing to follow the refugee mantra: U.S.A. means You Start Again.
The ride to the plant could take two hours, and the workers arrived early, huddling behind a pillar in the winter chill. The company owners decided to open the doors earlier, filling the break room with cases of instant noodles and sodas. The workers finish their cigarettes and come inside to watch the sun rise above the airport tower to the east. They will spend the day sorting and bagging and mixing pretzels, almonds, trail mix, hand-packing gummy bears, versed now in the previously unknown universe of allergens and cross-contamination. In those early days of 2010, the owners asked the workers what they would like in their break room and they said, “A rice cooker, please.”
“We measure our success as a company by the number of rice cookers we have,” Lindsay Hancock, Creative Snacks’ director of business administration, says only half-jokingly. The company has four now.
All 30 full-time employees on the plant floor are refugees. Many came through the Church World Service resettlement agency and its Greensboro employment training program. But that program’s future remains uncertain because, in the world of immigration and refugee policy, it turns out that the Mexican border and all its politics can run right through a North Carolina snack plant full of refugees.
File this under unintended consequences: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement allocates funds to programs for refugees and unaccompanied alien children. Earlier this year, when the number of children fleeing Central America and Mexico for the United States started skyrocketing, the office reallocated more money to help address a mounting crisis at the border. That money — $94 million — came directly out of refugee programs and services. Taking the hit were grants that help refugees with employment, preventative health services and adaption to America and its school system.
An emergency supplemental spending bill that would have provided more money to help with the border situation — and replenished the coffers of refugee services — fell victim to congressional gridlock. Lawmakers are now on their August break.
Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), one of two Democrats in the Senate who voted against moving a $2.7 billion emergency spending bill to the floor for a vote, said the bill did not adequately address “the root causes of this migration by cracking down on criminal trafficking organizations that are transporting these children.” She advocates more funding to send military forces to “combat these traffickers along the routes they’re using to bring these kids to the U.S.”
Here then is a collision of two policies, one for refugees that is generally popular, with demonstrated success at integrating newcomers, and one for immigrants that politely can be called a disaster, alienating native-born Americans, marginalizing newcomers and creating a new class of stranded minors at the border. For state refugee coordinators and immigration advocates, the crisis at the border has meant walking a tightrope: Do not make refugees bear the cost of Congress’s refusal to provide more funding. Do not pit refugees against immigrant children. Do not make us choose one or the other.
State refugee coordinators have been scrambling to figure out how to avoid layoffs and keep their health-care, educational and employment services intact. In Durham, Mary St. John, the Church World Service director of programs, was able to save the job of a liaison who helps refugee parents navigate the U.S. school system, but as the school year approaches, she was forced to shut down the program.
In Greensboro, Sarah Ivory, the director of immigration and refugee programs for Church World Service, prepared for possible layoffs and a reduction in the size of the employment training program. Each newly arrived refugee indirectly receives a one-time stipend of $1,125, on average, upon resettlement. Out of that pot, all of the refugees’ basic costs must be paid — apartment deposits, rent, clothing, food, furniture. A single refugee will always end up with a roommate or two, but, still, half the stipend is usually spent before he or she even gets here, Ivory says. North Carolina will augment a single refugee’s stipend with $181 a month for eight months and provide limited public assistance for families. All this means that refugees are racing against time to find work the moment they arrive.
Last week, Ivory and other program directors received the welcome news of a small reprieve. With the drop in the numbers of children coming across the border in July, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was able to redirect $22.5 million of the still-unspent $94 million back to refugee social service programs. Saved from cuts were a variety of programs that help refugees find and keep work, including Greensboro’s.
But a $71.5 million gap remains, a new fiscal year approaches, and when Congress returns next month, refugee advocates still must make a case for adequate funding to lawmakers who have shown themselves willing to sacrifice refugee programs at the altar of anti-immigrant sentiment.
“We depend upon Church World Service to help us find people,” Hancock says. “The loss of funding would have an immediate impact on our business.”
Yes, Hancock says, the company could hire the native-born, but Creative Snacks’ owners, Marius and Hilary Andersen, are committed to providing opportunities to refugees, who, by definition, have been wrenched from their homelands and who, in that loss, must place their faith in a new country. Over the past 4½ years, they have watched their workforce — all paid $9 per hour on average, which is above the minimum wage — trade buses for cars, short hair for long, rice for Chipotle.
At the Creative Snacks plant is an assistant manager named Bhakta Mainali. He is 30, a Bhutanese refugee who, while in a camp in Nepal, made his way through college and landed a job teaching science. He possesses a command of English and a cheerful disposition and since arriving in this country has worked in a rum factory, as a Walmart cashier and in a chicken processing plant. His wife, father, uncle and brother-in-law all work at the snack plant. “We know that when we come here we must start with base labor, but I don’t worry about my life. I worry only about my children’s lives. They are my pillars,” he says.
To live for years in a refugee camp, he says, is something most Americans cannot comprehend. It is a netherworld in which one lacks nationality. It is, he says, “to be without a title.”
“Actually, I did have a title there and that title is ‘refugee,’ ” he says. “I have been here since July 7, 2010, and still I am a refugee. But soon, I can delete my refugee title. I will be here five years and I can apply for citizenship and that will be my new title: ‘citizen.’ ”
In the political wrangling over immigration that has ensnared the funding for refugees, these are voices lost, Church World Service’s Ivory says. “One of the reasons I love working with refugees so much is that they have made the radical, life-altering decision to believe that something within themselves is greater than circumstance. . . I believe that new immigrants bring with them a faith in a version of America that we desperately need to keep alive.”
They come to Church World Service month after month. Forty-four in June, 12 in July, 28 expected this month. They take their seats in the employment training class, with its bank of computers and view of a busy road. They sit surrounded by posters of the branches of government and a map of the United States and practice saying to one another: How are you? What is your name? Where are you from?
They repeat the sentences as if they were an incantation, the spell that will one day make them Americans.