Akron's Refugee Resettlement Programs Brace for New Immigration Restrictions

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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.

On a recent afternoon, World Relief’s Anna Beth Walters held an 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.’ It’s the attitude we need everyone to have," she told them.  "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 said 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 from eleven, mostly Muslim, countries.

“It’s been made super clear that this administration is very anti-refugee," said Kara Ulmer, head of World Relief in Akron.  She said 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,'" she said.

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 already had plans to settle at least 100 refugees.

Akron has the numbers it needs and, according to World Relief’s Ulmer, the city also has a good track record of welcoming and integrating arrivals.

 “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," said Ulmer.

But Madhu Sharma, acting director of the International Institute, said 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. 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,” said Sharma.

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 fortunate luck of the draw. Other cities, such as Milwaukee, drew from eleven 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. And yet it’s the easiest, most controlled program and so it’s the easiest to switch it off," said Ulmer.

For now, the refugee flow to the Akron area has not switched off. And the local community is trying to ensure the flow continues. This week, a working group of the Welcoming Communities initiative is meeting to talk about economic development and refugees.  For Ohio Public Radio, I'm M.L. Schultze.

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