Trump’s Cuts to US Refugee Program Lead to 300-plus Layoffs

The president's desire to cut refugees is also costing U.S. jobs.

A reduction in refugee resettlement that began after an executive order by President Donald Trump in late January has led to at least 300 layoffs in the U.S. nonprofit sector and nearly 500 positions abroad, according to data collected by VOA. In some cases, the jobs slashed were held by resettled refugees.

A review of news releases, media reports, and information obtained from a survey sent by VOA to the nine primary resettlement agencies shows that seven of those organizations contracted by the government to coordinate refugees' first months and years of living in the United States have had layoffs at their headquarters and local offices around the country, or at affiliate and partner organizations.

VOA documented more than 300 part-time and full-time positions cut in the United States, including:

Additional organizations reported cutting employees' hours and not filling vacancies to trim budgets.

"Our budget as a refugee resettlement agency was heavily dependent on the government funding and the suspension and reduction of U.S. admissions for 2017 as well as [the] same dim prospect for 2018 has caused a huge negative impact on agencies like ours," Aklilu Adeye, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, told VOA in an email. The organization recently cut five positions.

The tally is not exhaustive: Two of the nine primary resettlement organizations � Episcopal Migration Ministries and International Rescue Committee � did not respond to VOA's request for information or make that figure otherwise public; the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops � historically one of the most active resettlement agencies � declined to provide data or comment about layoffs.

After the first executive order in January that would have stopped refugee arrivals for four months and cut the overall number for the fiscal year to 50,000, Sister Donna Markham, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said that the program's suspension would affect about 700 employees of Catholic Charities agencies nationwide, "with layoffs expected for nearly all of the workers."

"If we're talking about American jobs, this is laying off people in these public-private partnerships," she told the National Catholic Reporter in February.

Overseas, Church World Service has laid off almost all 600 staff members at its Resettlement Support Center Africa, which coordinates with the State Department under a separate part of the refugee process from U.S.-based affiliates: 484 in Kenya, 27 in South Africa, and 19 in Tanzania.

"The decision to reduce our staff was a direct result of these executive orders, which sabotage our ability to offer vital services, support and counsel to families seeking to rebuild their lives in safety," CWS President and CEO Reverend John L. McCullough said in a statement in March.

The contracts between the government and the nonprofit organizations � some of which have resettled refugees for decades � are based per capita on how many refugees are resettled by the agencies. They receive about $900 for each refugee to cover the administrative costs of helping the newcomers in their first 90 days in the country, from picking them up at the airport, setting up their first home and enrolling children in school, to hosting English classes and advising on job searches. Another $1,125 goes directly to each refugee for initial costs of setting up their lives in the United States, such as rent and furniture.

Fewer arrivals mean less funding, and that jeopardizes jobs � including some held by refugees themselves, who often are hired to interpret for members of their community or find other positions in the resettlement field.

In some cases, the nonprofit organizations are planning to receive thousands fewer refugees than anticipated by the end of the fiscal year.

From high hopes to layoffs

The fiscal year started with a surge ordered by then-President Barack Obama: The United States would take 110,000 refugees � more than it had in decades.

But those plans came to a screeching halt in late January, when one of Trump's initial executive orders trimmed that number to 50,000; a revised order in March upheld the president's call for that 55 percent reduction.

Despite federal lawsuits and injunctions rolling back those orders, the president maintains broad power over the ultimate number of refugees that will be allowed into the country. Trump has repeatedly expressed interest in significantly lower arrivals, leaning on what he says is a lack of confidence in the screening process for admitted refugees � although refugees are among the most rigorously vetted immigrants to the U.S.

Many resettlement organizations signed amicus briefs in support of lawsuits that challenged the refugee-related executive order, stating in one case that "faith-based refugee organizations' ability to maintain operations and services moving forward has been devastated."

The nonprofits have tried to rally financial support from the public in recent months, but several indicated in phone and email interviews that donations would not make up for any reduction in funding from the government.

The government's Office of Refugee Resettlement operated on a budget of $1.67 billion in fiscal year 2016. That includes more than services for refugee resettlement, however. The bureau handles other programs, such as anti-trafficking efforts, and unaccompanied children. ORR asked for $2.18 billion for FY2017.

Refugee admissions in flux

So far this fiscal year, the U.S. has resettled about 42,000 refugees, but there has been no final word from the executive branch about how many more will be allowed in. The administration could halt the process abruptly at 50,000. At the current rate of arrivals � 800 to 900 individuals a week � that cap would be reached around the end of June or early July. (Last year, the country admitted 84,995.)

Fluctuations in the weekly refugee arrival numbers since Trump's inauguration Jan. 20 reflect a system rattled by uncertainty, though in recent weeks that number has stabilized to align with a State Department comment to Huffington Post, indicating a goal of about 900 arrivals a week.

Trump promised to dramatically change not only the number of refugees admitted but the composition of where they come from and what religions they are, initially pledging to block Syrians and increase the number of Christians. However, the demographics remain nearly identical to those from before Trump took office.

A VOA analysis of refugee arrival data from Oct. 1 to Jan. 20 � the part of the fiscal year under Obama � compared with data from the beginning of Trump's term until the end of March, shows the top 10 origin countries remain the same (DRC, Syria, Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Ukraine, Bhutan, Iran, Eritrea and Afghanistan). At the beginning of the fiscal year, about 48 percent of arriving refugees were Muslim. That figure is now 46 percent. Forty-three percent were Christian, which remained the same under Trump.

Lavinia Limon, head of USCRI, emphasizes that while U.S. refugee policy may leave some people out of work now, she believes the greater toll is on refugees awaiting resettlement. Even as the United States reduces its intake, the need for finding permanent new home-countries for some refugees remains the same.

"USCRI has been around for 104 years, and we have seen a lot of different politicians and politics surrounding the issues related to refugees and immigrants come and go," Limon said. "I believe the focus needs to be on those thousands of refugees who will not be rescued and who will continue to suffer and might lose their lives because of politics in their homeland and politics in America.

"Whatever financial strain we may experience pales in comparison to their plights," she added.

Source: Voice of America