Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services calls for reform and more funding for refugee program

In a letter posted on LIRS website, Ralston Deffenbaugh, LIRS President, and Annie Wilson, LIRS Executive Vice President, call for reform of the refugee resettlement program in the wake of an economic downturn that is making employment of refugees a near impossibility in many cities across the US.   I wonder if they are worrying too about whether LIRS itself, one of the top ten government refugee contractors, can survive without additional funds.

As we all know, the United States is suffering a severe economic crisis. In January the national unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent, and it continues to rise. In carrying out the LIRS ministry of service and justice we confront troubling questions: How are refugee and migrant communities being affected, and what new measures should we be taking to help? What challenges do our partners face and how can we support them? And what steps does LIRS itself need to take to ensure a sustainable future?

Although I don’t know all the early history of the refugee resettlement program as it was structured after the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 (Kennedy, Biden, Carter), I’ve gathered that the focus and core of the program was (is) to get refugees employed quickly and thereby throw them into the water (so to speak) of society.   Welfare was to be limited.   Looks like LIRS wants that to change.

In our view the challenge of securing employment for refugees in the current environment simply highlights the gaps in a resettlement program that has become overly dependent on employment as the sole answer to successful integration. Even before the current crisis, we have seen troubling indicators that many refugees get stuck in long-term poverty, inhibited by language, trauma and isolation. These challenges have not been addressed straightforwardly, but instead have been overshadowed by the general discourse on employment.

LIRS will be focusing on lobbying for more “resources.”   I’m sure that the Obama administration that is busy wiping out earlier welfare reform in order to make more people dependent on government will be obliging them eventually.

The core of LIRS’s response to shifting patterns of refugee employment will be in the advocacy arena as we promote the need for a new resettlement model—one that is more responsive to individual situations and acknowledges the critical importance of strong social networks. We do not want to lose the strongest aspects of the employment-focused approach—in particular, rapid exposure to U.S. social systems and the dignity of work. But a new resettlement model should emphasize longer-term outcomes, build on community strengths, and address the circumstances of nonemployable refugees such as the elderly, youth and women isolated by household responsibilities.

LIRS subcontractors are asking (sensibly in my opinion) that no more refugees be sent to them for resettlement.

We also need to address strains in the public-private partnership between voluntary agencies and the federal government. LIRS is deeply concerned about our affiliate networks across the country. After a period of relative stability in our resettlement system, we are now hearing affiliates express real apprehension about their financial viability. Several are questioning their capacity to manage high-quality programs when needs are high and resources are limited. And, for the first time in our more than 18 years at LIRS, we are hearing some affiliates ask that we not send them more refugees—that they are not sure that in good conscience they can do an acceptable job of resettlement.

More welfare for refugees and more money from the taxpayer for LIRS and its subcontractors, that is what they are calling reform.

Although LIRS and our partners are doing what we can, our nation needs a stronger commitment to the straightforwardly humanitarian aspect of the program—not just to the early employment goal. And this commitment must be accompanied by adequate resources. It will be impossible for the United States to sustain—much less expand—its dedication to refugee resettlement unless the domestic resettlement system is reformed and better resourced.

I get a kick out of their choice of words here, they dare not say “welfare” or more “money” for themselves. 

We have lots of reform ideas if the law comes up for Congressional review.   As a matter of fact, I bet the Act is long overdue for reauthorization hearings.