Utah refugees suffering, state to free up federal housing money

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Yesterday in a post about thousands of Iraqis supposedly headed to Florida, I mentioned that Utah was one of 15 states where Iraqis had complained they could not find work.

So, as if on cue, this morning there is news from Salt Lake City that Utah is attempting a last ditch plan to rescue suffering refugees from the high cost of housing (and lack of jobs).  The article in the International Herald Tribune begins:

After escaping violence in Myanmar and spending 27 years in the bamboo huts of a United Nations camp in Thailand, Nyaw Paw, 33, arrived in the United States to face the traumatic adjustment and cultural vertigo known to every refugee.

But between high rents, lagging federal aid and now a recession that is drying up entry-level work, the transition has become harder than ever, refugee workers say. Overwhelming housing costs are its starkest symptom: Many new arrivals spend 90 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities, leaving them virtually no disposable income and creating enormous hardships, officials say.

According to this article, Utah will be the first state to make federal welfare grants, that would normally go to American poor, available to refugees.

Poor refugees – like low-income Americans – can apply for rent subsidies, which require that recipients spend 30 percent of their income on rent, with the U.S. government picking up the rest. But in Salt Lake City, there is a two-year waiting list, and it is longer than that in many other cities.

Starting next month, in the first program of its kind, Utah plans to soften the huge and growing burden of housing costs by providing rent subsidies to recently arrived families for up to two years. The money is being drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves. Under the welfare reforms of 1996, states can use the U.S. government grant flexibly for families that already qualify for welfare – mainly single-parent families like Paw’s. For them, such help will make a world of difference.

There are not enough jobs for skilled and educated Iraqis or for the largest number of refugees, those with no skills, little education and no command of English.  

Apart from a share of Iraqis who arrive with professional degrees, most refugees these days arrive from Africa and Asia with little education or experience of Western life, and no relatives to help.

U.S. aid has not matched the rising cost of housing, state welfare programs are skimpier than before and cheap housing is ever scarcer. Meanwhile, the jobs that refugees have often ridden to success, like work in warehouses and hotels, are drying up.

There appears to be no one in the refugee industry even taking note of all this, and no one (except us critics!) suggesting we slow down on the number of unemployable people we are bringing into the US.

The housing plan has drawn no significant opposition in Utah, which is generally seen as friendly to refugees. But the size of the U.S. refugee program, which admitted about 60,000 people last year and is widely regarded as advancing humanitarian and foreign policy goals, has been questioned by some. Critics say America allows in too many people who are surely going to require public aid yet have alternative places to live. Paw, for example, could have remained in Thailand by this argument.

“We are much too permissive about letting refugees in,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors reducing immigration. Refugee admissions, he said, should be held “to the very small number of people who don’t have and won’t have any place else to go.”

Mr. Krikorian’s final statement makes sense, but not to people in the refugee industry who think that ALL REFUGEES HAVE NO PLACE ELSE TO GO!

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