NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — The people who help refugees from around the world resettle in the Nashville area and across Tennessee are waiting to see if the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the number of refugees to be admitted to the country to 18,000 in the next fiscal year, the lowest number since the resettlement program was created in 1980, will stand.
“The agencies are waiting and crossing their fingers, and in the meantime continue doing what they do. And they do it well,” said Holly Johnson, director of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, which oversees the resettlement program in the state.
The U.S. State Department released the Trump administration’s refugee cap proposal Sept. 26 and the White House issued a separate order saying states and localities must approve refugee resettlement in their regions before refugees can be sent to them.
A final decision on the number of refugees the U.S. will admit will be made after consultation with Congress. A moratorium on admitting refugees has been put in place until Oct. 22, according to Johnson.
“The resettlement programs we have in Tennessee are exceptional,” she told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. “They are strong programs that serve a lot of people and serve them really well.”
Catholic Charities of Tennessee’s Refugee and Immigration Services office is one of five resettlement agencies operating in the state and one of two in the Nashville area.
In the last federal fiscal year, which stretched from Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019, Catholic Charities helped to resettle 258 refugees. “It was more than we expected,” said Kellye Branson, the agency’s director.
About half of the refugees are from Congo and had been living in refugee camps throughout Africa. The next largest group were Burmese from camps in Thailand and Malaysia, she said.
There also were several people from Afghanistan who were targets of persecution because they worked with U.S. military forces in their country, Branson said.
Catholic Charities also resettled Eritrean, Iraqi, Ukrainian and Sudanese refugees last year.
Last year, the federal government set the limit of the number of refugees to be admitted into the country at 30,000 and about 600 were resettled in Tennessee, Johnson said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases we got were reuniting families, so they had somebody already here,” Branson said.
“The resettlement program is designed to assist people fleeing persecution. In being displaced from their country, families are often separated,” Branson said.
The resettlement program tries to reunite families when possible, Johnson said. “That’s a priority always.”
For new arrivals, having family nearby provides an important support network, Branson said. One important service family can help with is transportation so the new arrivals have a way to get to and from a job.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” Branson said of finding transportation for new arrivals. “That’s how family members can help.”
The State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the resettlement program across the country.
Refugees, who typically live in a refugee camp for 15 to 20 years before being resettled in a third country, are thoroughly vetted by several U.S. agencies before they are resettled.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement works with nine national agencies that have local affiliates across the country to resettle the refugees. Catholic Charities works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Tennessee Office for Refugees distributes federal funding to the local resettlement agencies in the state to help pay for cash and medical assistance, initial medical screenings, employment, social adjustment services, and English language classes for the refugees.
“We make sure the agencies serving the refugees serve them well, that everyone resettling refugees is being a good steward of those federal dollars,” Johnson said.
Most of the refugees have a job within three to four months after their arrival and are economically self-sufficient within six months, Branson said.
“We want them to come here and not only be safe but be part of the greater Nashville community,” she said.
“All of the studies have shown refugees are an economic benefit to our country,” through tax revenues they contribute and the small businesses they start, Branson said.
They also help address a labor shortage in the area, she added. “We have employers struggling to find staff. I get calls every week from new employers.”
Resettlement agencies operate in four metropolitan areas in Tennessee: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
The details of how states and cities will be required to opt into the program are still unclear, Johnson said.
“My understanding is they have … 90 days to make a decision,” Johnson said, but it’s still not clear how the 90 days will fit with the end of the moratorium on admitting refugees this year.
Telli is managing editor at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.
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