POLITICS

Refugee Groups Say Communities Are Ready And Willing To Do More

The government expects to admit up to 85,000 refugees next fiscal year.

WASHINGTON -- For every refugee family resettled in the U.S., there's considerable work to be done. Someone needs to pick them up from the airport, find them a place to live and furnish their new home. Many refugees need help learning English, registering their children at school and finding a job. 

Bringing in more refugees would be a major undertaking. But groups that work on resettlement say they're up to the challenge, particularly given the volume of calls they are getting from community members, churches and other groups wanting to help. That community response, along with what they view as a moral imperative for the U.S. to do more, prompted organizations to call for the government to nearly triple its refugee admissions.

"People understand that refugees are people that are persecuted because of their religion, their ethnicity, their political beliefs and so forth, and so people feel compassion for that," Jim Hershberger, program director for Church World Service's resettlement office in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told The Huffington Post.

He said his group typically resettles an average of 125 to 150 people every year, and his community has always been supportive of refugees. But the group has recently seen an uptick in volunteers and was even able to hire a new staffer.

If the Obama administration goes through with its plan to up the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. -- albeit not by as much as advocates had hoped -- the ability of organizations like Hershberger's to help will be tested. The U.S. has agreed to accept 85,000 refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and will increase admissions to 100,000 in the 2017 fiscal year, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday.

Refugee groups say communities in the U.S. want to do more to help those in need.
Refugee groups say communities in the U.S. want to do more to help those in need.

That's higher than the current refugee admissions cap, which is set at 70,000 -- the same it's been since fiscal year 2013. In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the first two years President Barack Obama set the cap, it was at 80,000 people, before being decreased to 76,000 in fiscal year 2012. But high refugee admission numbers aren't unprecedented, which is why resettlement groups have said they will be able to cope. 

The U.S. has a significant refugee resettlement infrastructure in place: Nine domestic nongovernmental organizations have about 350 affiliate offices around the country already doing this work. They receive funding from the government for refugee resettlement, so if they began handling more people, they would also likely get more money to do so.

That's not to say an increase in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. would be easy to manage. Hilary Weaver, co-director of the Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute at the University at Buffalo, said in an interview that she believes the U.S. can and should do more, but cautioned that resettlement agencies are often stretched.

"We need to look at what they need not just for that resettlement period, but what we're going to need beyond," Weaver said. "It's really a long-term prospect, and we need to invest in social services, in social workers, in paraprofessionals who come from these communities [and in] nurses, teachers who are knowledgeable about these populations and will be able to assist with ongoing needs." 

Eskinder Negash, vice president for global engagement at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, emphasized the importance of community support.

 "We have done this work many, many times. I believe that if there is a will, then we can do it," Negash said last week. "Resettlement in this country requires community support and we believe we have done that with host families from Vermont all the way to Juneau, Alaska. There are people ready to assist."

Bill Canny, executive director of migration and refugee services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoed that statement.

"The United States has always been a government of the people, and the people are speaking," he said. "We're all getting calls from parishes, churches, corporations stepping up, saying, 'We'll help refugees.' I think the administration has to listen to the people."