Refugee advocates have launched a frantic campaign to urge Congress to approve President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency supplemental funding to deal with the thousands of Central American children pouring into the country, because current policy risks pitting those children against existing refugees in a scrap for federal assistance.
In a move noticed by few outside refugee circles, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement in June notified Congress it was shifting $94 million from refugee services programs to those dealing with the emergency on the border. The administration's request for emergency funding includes $1.8 billion for HHS, which would replenish the refugee funds.
The Senate is scheduled to open debate on its version of that spending bill Thursday, but time is running out for it and the House to come to agreement. Congress is set to leave town Friday for its August recess. Without the supplemental funding, many agencies would begin cutting programs to get through the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Some, said Naomi Steinberg, director of Refugee Council USA, have already begun reducing services to existing refugee programs..
That creates a touchy situation for advocates who fear one vulnerable group being cast against the other.
Sarah Ivory is the director of the immigrant and refugee program for the Church World Service resettlement agency in Greensboro, N.C. Over the past several weeks, she has been looking at numbers. Number of employees. Numbers of newly arriving refugees. Numbers of refugees served in the agency’s various programs.
In her world, numbers are never just numbers. So she thinks of the traumas those refugees have suffered, of their resilience, of the way in which one case manager, a Bhutanese refugee, throws his head back when he laughs, and of an Iraqi refugee who worked as a contractor for the U.S. military and now, bit by bit, saves money for college.
And she thinks of how Congress, in its wrangling over the funding bill, has pitted the needs of children who would be refugees against people who already are.
“The timeline is now, in a nutshell. It is absolutely now. If this isn’t addressed until September, it will be too late for many of these programs,” Steinberg said.
That tension -- between refugees and children who many believe should be legally classified as refugees -- is something that has concerned people working in the field. The Office of Refugee Resettlement took responsibility for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program several years ago. Since then, the number of children crossing the border from Central America and Mexico has climbed dramatically. This year, the numbers skyrocketed. So far this year, nearly 60,000 children fleeing violence, or believing that the Obama administration would allow them to stay, or both, have entered the U.S.
“These are both critical issues, but they are not the same program,” Ivory said. “We could see at the time that as the needs continued to grow (in the unaccompanied children program), the funding for it would have to come from someplace.”
It should not be an either-or, Steinberg said.
“This is an unacceptable calculus we have been forced to deal with,” she said. “It’s unconscionable that these cuts could be borne on the back of refugees.” But, she added, it is also unacceptable for the country to turn its back on the children crossing the border, “many of whom have bona fide refugee claims. How we respond to them is really a reflection on us as a country.”
Jen Smyers, Church World Service’s associate director of immigration and refugee policy, said that in addition to employment services programs, state refugee coordinators may have to cut grants aimed at helping schools with refugee populations do a better job serving children who may have lived for years in camps, or who are victims of trauma. Also potentially vulnerable are programs that assist the elderly, who often have a much more difficult time adjusting to life in this country, along with preventative health programs that address both the physical and mental needs of refugees.
Advocates across the country have been meeting, calling and emailing their congressional representatives to urge them to support a clean supplemental funding bill – no strings attached. That’s at odds with the House bill. It provides even less overall funding for both the Office of Refugee Resettlement and backfills only half the money shifted to serve the children at the border. It also includes language that would roll back certain legal protections for such children – something both immigrant and refugee advocates oppose.
In Greensboro, Ivory, tries to remain optimistic. Last year, her office resettled 233 people who came from camps out of Kenya and Uganda, Burmese from Malaysia, some Bhutanese, Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans. It’s now serving an additional 55 refugees in its work program for those who have lost their jobs or are seeking something better. Should Congress not act, she said, she faces laying off two staffers and the work program would essentially be halved.
“We see ripple effects throughout the community because these programs help people become productive, contributing members of society who don’t need to rely on public benefits,” she said. “There is a big risk of ruining one part of our immigration system that is doing well by letting it slip by the wayside as we try to figure out the big picture.”