Both of Summit County’s resettlement agencies are likely to survive the Trump administration’s latest restructuring of refugee efforts nationwide. But they’re also dealing with major changes in numbers, policy and expectations.
World Relief’s Anna Beth Walters is conducting orientation with Bhakta Bista and three other Bhutanese refugees who arrived in Akron from Nepal in December.
“’I will take the first job. It’s not my ideal job,'" she says. "It’s the attitude we need everyone to have. Because your first job in America is not going to be your dream job.”
Since October, World Relief Akron has resettled 50 people. Most, like Bista, arrived here from the two remaining refugee camps in Nepal, places where he says you have to watch out for floods and for elephants that trample people and huts.
In all, the numbers are looking good for the agency to meet its goal of resettling 195 people in this area by the end of September – a goal that is even higher than last year. And the International Institute of Akron expects it will have no trouble meeting its goal this year of 350, even with a 30 percent cut in staff.
Still, the numbers here are relative. Last year, the International Institute alone resettled nearly 800 people, and together, the two agencies resettled more than 900 refugees.
And in much of the rest of the country, the slowdown is far greater: A World Relief office in Wisconsin has resettled just one family since September.
The primary reason is President Trump. He set the limit for refugees allowed in the U.S. at 45,000, down from more than 100,000, and he’s throttled even further back on those travelers from 11, mostly Muslim, countries.
“It’s been made super clear that this administration is very anti-refugee," says Kara Ulmer, head of World Relief Akron.
She says the line has continued to harden. The actual pace of resettlement has been running at just 5,300 in the first quarter.
“Previously communication that was coming out of the U.S. State Department was, ‘We’re going to do everything in our power to hit 45,000,’ and that message has changed to, ‘We’ll see if we can hit 45,000,’” Ulmer says.
Cutting Off Smaller Agencies
Last month, the pressure on resettlement agencies took on an added dimension.
The State Department, which authorizes and funds resettlement, took an unprecedented step. It told the nine national umbrella resettlement agencies that any of their hundreds of affiliates – nonprofit agencies like the International Institute and World Relief – would be cut off altogether unless they already had plans to settle at least 100 refugees.
Akron has the numbers it needs and, Ulmer says, a good track record.
“I think Akron and Summit County becoming a Welcoming Community has created an atmosphere or an environment for an appreciation of what the refugee community has brought here,” Ulmer says.
But Madhu Sharma, acting director of the International Institute, says beyond Summit County, the change could have a big impact nationally on the very nature of resettlement: family reunification. Instead of coming to communities where family members are already living, working and going to school, new arrivals could find themselves scattered and isolated.
“Successful resettlement requires genuine integration,” Sharma says. “It takes time, but what always leads to success is having a family to join in helping you in that pathway to being accepted in your community – and to learning the ins-and-outs of living in the United States.”
For much of the last decade, reunification of families from Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal has driven Akron’s numbers. In a way, it’s been a luck of the draw. Other cities, such as Milwaukee, drew from 11 countries, such as Somalia, to which Trump has applied extra limits and “extreme vetting.”
But yet another change advocated by the Trump administration may affect Akron more directly in the coming year. President Trump wants to replace family reunification as an immigration priority with an emphasis on the newcomers’ skills and economic benefits.
Ulmer isn’t sure where refugees will fit in that equation. And overall, she says she’s confused about why refugees are regarded with such suspicion by the president and his supporters.
“Refugees fit every criteria that the administration is saying that they want: economic benefit, assimilation, entering into our culture, paying taxes, not being on welfare,” Ulmer says. “And yet it’s the easiest, most controlled program and so it’s the easiest to switch it off.”
For now, the refugee flow to the Akron area has not switched off, as the local community tries to ensure the flow continues. This week, a working group of the Welcoming Communities initiative is meeting to talk about economic development and refugees.
This story is a collaboration between WKSU and the Beacon-Journal. Here's more from The Beacon-Journal's Doug Livingston on the changes directed by the Trump administration:
- Refugee resettlement agencies anticipated a tougher stance on legal and illegal immigration shortly after President Donald Trump took office in January. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Trump relaxed policies on deporting non-violent offenders here illegally and quickly drafted executive orders that blocked travel and by legal refugees from war-torn countries, some flooding Europe with Muslims displaced by civil war.
- The travel and refugee ban was challenged in court, setting off a chain of appeals and rulings that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing Trump’s orders to proceed while lower courts settled the case.
- Effective Oct. 1, President Trump set a new limit for refugees coming into the U.S., cutting it from 110,000 under President Obama to 45,000. In the first quarter of the fiscal year, only about 5,300 refugees have been admitted, putting the U.S. on a pace for about 21,000.
- In October, Trump lifted a 120-day pause on refugee resettlements. Moving forward, the program would use "enhanced vetting capabilities,” which have not been clearly defined. An all-out refugee ban remained on 11 countries, with Islam the major religion in nine of them.
- Represented by the ACLU, refugees from Egypt, Iraq and Somalia convinced a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle, who was appointed by George W. Bush, to partially overrule Trump’s latest version, allowing instead for the refugees with "bona fide U.S. ties" — or families here — to be resettled from the banned countries.
- That last order came on Dec. 23. The White House and State Department have said they disagree and are exploring next steps.