What it’s like to be a refugee in America

That is the title of a Christian Science Monitor article a couple days ago.   Written by reporter Mary Wiltenberg, it is very thorough and well worth the read—even if I disagree with some of it! 

The article weaves an account of an African family’s experiences as they settle into life in Atlanta in between information on the program and how it works.   As a matter of fact, as I read it, I thought maybe the US State Department should hire Ms. Wiltenberg to write a manual of sorts on the program to be distributed in communities where refugees are resettled—to help answer citizens’ many questions in a straightforward and non-patronizing way.  The fact that citizens of resettlement cities are not consulted and generally left in the dark, leads to  much misunderstanding and is a major complaint of mine.   The reporter does a very good job explaining a complex federal program, warts and all.

The progam has problems.

A cornerstone of US foreign policy since the Carter administration, the resettlement program draws universal praise for its lifesaving generosity. But since 1980, it has been no politician’s top priority and has gone without major reform. And in today’s economy, the minimally funded program is failing many of those it rescues. Without a basic cultural foundation and language skills, some refugees who arrived in the US eager to build a life are ending up on the streets. Some are even returning to the war zones they fled, in desperate search of livelihoods.

This is the general outline of what refugees receive but one big issue is that it varies from agency to agency and city to city.   Some agencies do a better job than others.

Funded according to the volume of refugees they resettle, these agencies get $900 per head to cover administrative costs plus a refugee’s first three months in America: food, clothes, furniture, housing deposit, and rent. The agencies raise funds and distribute donated goods, and provide many refugees with help finding jobs, learning English, and accessing medical care, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services – and states sometimes chip in public assistance. But eight months after arrival, refugees are on their own and newcomers are lined up behind them, just as wasted and lost.

There are not enough jobs, especially now, for all the refugees arriving.

But today, refugees entering the job market are one of the biggest casualties of the economic collapse. In Phoenix, a major resettlement center, 80 percent of refugees were employed and self-supporting within four months of their arrival in 2007. Now, only 10 percent are.

It’s a similar scene here in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, an enclave of resettled refugees from more than 50 countries. On a cold February morning, Bhutanese refugee Bhanu Dhakal waited in line with 60 other refugees at the farmers’ market where Dawami got her first job. After two hours, he learned that there was no work, even for an experienced high school English teacher like him. For four months, he’d been hunting, willing to take any job. He and his wife were amazed: “This is not what we expected in America.”

There is a need to collect data on how the refugees are doing.

“Right now, we know there are huge problems facing refugees who resettle here because of the increase in unemployment and cutbacks in government services,” says Tim Riesser, a foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. While little hard data has been collected on how many refugees are falling through the cracks, resettlement agencies see a growing number who are unemployed and unable to pay rent.

No plans from the Obama Administration to reform the program, maybe just more money.   Then this!   It costs on average $14,000 per refugee for resettlement, but that figure must not take into account those who stay on various forms of welfare for years.

There’s no sign that the Obama administration plans a major revision of resettlement policy in the near term, and the issue isn’t on the Congressional agenda. Key agencies – State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) – are in a holding pattern until administration appointees are in place.

What could change is funding. Over $1 billion is budgeted federally for resettlement (about $14,000 per refugee). But since the program’s founding, funding hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living – the length of assistance to new arrivals has shrunk: from 24 months three decades ago to a maximum of eight today.

So who are refugees?  And, where does it end?

Who are refugees? The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, which the US signed, says: People outside their home countries who can’t return due to “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (“Asylum seekers” have the same fear of persecution, but are already living in the countries to which they apply for protection.) This wording applies to many desperate people today, from the thousands of Sudanese streaming out of Darfur to the 2 million Iraqis forced from their country by the US war to 3 million Afghans still homeless 29 years after that nation’s previous war.

Over time, though, the definition has become problematic. Each year, millions around the world flee wars that devastate their lands and decimate their people, but don’t count as targeted persecution. Tens of millions more are “economic migrants,” uprooted by lack of livelihood.

In response to the above, I’m going to ask readers to watch the video at the NumbersUSA link at the top of the page, and then tell me where it ends.  I know it sounds harsh but we aren’t going to save them all. 

There is lots more in this article that you should find interesting.  I was going to remind you of the fraud that occurs in the program, how desperate people lie outright or just inadvertently, but it’s late and I am running out of steam.

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