Feds set to divert refugee funds to deal with unaccompanied minors

Illinois refugee support agencies prepare to gut services.

August 1, 2014

(AP/Eric Gay)
A group of Honduran immigrants stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border in Granjeno, Texas. Funding to handle the surge in unaccompanied minors mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador may be siphoned off from services that help legal refugees integrate.

Refugee assistance agencies in Illinois are steeling themselves for dramatic cuts in federal funding, which threaten to gut core services aimed at helping newcomers adjust and integrate to life in the U.S. The money instead is slated to go toward dealing with a crisis of unaccompanied minors streaming over the southern border, overwhelming temporary shelters that the U.S. is scrambling to expand.

“This is really an impossible situation that we’re being put in, in which we have to rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and have to choose between two vulnerable groups of people,” said Erol Kekic, chair of the Refugee Council USA and Director of Immigration and Refugee services at Church World Service.

“This is happening against the backdrop of this incredible upheaval that is plaguing our world at this point in time with (the) refugee crisis getting way out of hand in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Somalia, etc,” he added, “and (the) U.S. has to do its part to assist in this process.”

In Illinois, resettlement agencies and refugee support organizations stand to lose a total of $2.7 million in funds from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The agency is responsible for services rendered to refugees from their point of arrival in the U.S., to up to five years after. Refugees, unlike unaccompanied minors, are legally present in the U.S., and have already undergone rigorous background checks by the Department of Homeland Security and immigration authorities before they are admitted to the U.S. by the State Department.

Statewide, the cuts represent $1.3 million in core programming for refugees, and an additional $1.4 million in discretionary grants which fund services for K-12 children, seniors, preventative health care, and intensive case management for refugees with particularly acute need of assistance. Currently, Illinois provides these services to about 3,500 refugees, according to Deborah Covington, Vice President of Planning and Allocation for Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. That organization is Illinois’s prime contractor for distributing and overseeing the bulk of ORR refugee funds.

Covington said programs funded by the discretionary grants will be completely eliminated. The state’s seven refugee resettlement agencies, and two additional resettlement support organizations, will have discretion as to how to accommodate the cuts in core programming.

“When budgetary crises happen, and we have a humanitarian crisis that’s going on on the border, it’s inappropriate to pit one deserving group against another,” said Covington. “The pie needs to be expanded, not simply rearranging the pie that’s there.”

“We would pretty much be gutting our services,” said Melineh Kano, Executive Director of RefugeeONE, which resettles the largest number of refugees in the City of Chicago. “We have nine programs. Of the nine programs, four would totally shut down, and two programs would be drastically reduced.”

Kano said unless Congress passes an emergency supplemental funding bill that replenishes the cuts, she will likely have to eliminate core services as soon as October 1. Slated for the chopping block would be programs for youth, seniors, intensive case management, medical case management, and English language training. In addition, she will drastically reduce regular case management services with bilingual staff and employment services. Kano anticipates she will have to cut 10 of her 33 full-time employees, and 7 of her 11 part-time employees.

“Now, what that translates into in terms of service provision is that you have to have intensive services to help single mothers, to help individuals who perhaps don’t have significant literacy skills, to help individuals who have been warehoused in refugee camps for several years, to be able to adjust to life in Chicago and become self-sufficient,” she said.

Kano and others said cuts would also come at a time that refugees need them more than ever. In accord with a Presidential Determination, which announces the number of refugees that the U.S. may accept in a given fiscal year, and from which area of the world, the U.S. has increasingly been taking refugees from countries such as the Congo, Iraq, Bhutan, and starting next year, Syria.

“These are definitely individuals who have been through war and trauma,” said Kano, “and without the important programs that we are here to provide for them, they would really have (a) hard time to integrate into society here and become self-sufficient.”

Refugee advocates are hopeful that federal lawmakers will reach an agreement on a supplemental funding bill to replenish the cuts by September 30. While a proposal by President Barack Obama to provide $3.7 billion toward handling the unaccompanied minors crisis would have made the refugee services whole, neither the House nor Senate have shown an appetite for such a large allocation. In particular, funding contemplated by House GOP leaders doesn’t appear to come close to restoring the cuts for refugee services.

“The House leadership is interested in passing legislation that provides much less funding and is much more focused on border enforcement and limiting the President’s authority than they are in really solving the humanitarian crisis,” said Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

“We’re still hoping that some kind of resolution will take place,” he added, “but obviously the clock is running.”

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.