The Trump administration announced this week a proposal to further limit the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S.
Starting this upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, only 30,000 refugees will be admitted into the U.S. The announcement is another blow to resettlement agencies, including groups in Chicago.
The decision comes after the administration capped the number of new refugees at 45,000 for the current fiscal year — a historic low. The ceiling, or cap, is announced annually.
Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization, said its three offices in Chicago were able to resettle a combined 1,017 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year.
This year, however, that number decreased dramatically to around 170.
“There are people who we would’ve expected to be arriving this year, who are not arriving,” Soerens said.
He said these cases are often related to family reunifications.
“We actually have people here who come into our office on a regular basis asking, ‘When is my wife, [kid, or brother] going to be able to arrive?’” Soerens said. “And we’re not able to give them a clear answer at this point, because the hard reality is, probably not soon and maybe not ever. I mean, we don’t know when this will change.”
Soerens said Muslim refugees from countries like Iraq and Syria have been disproportionately impacted by the change.
Lea Tienou-Gustafson, who directs the refugee program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago, said the agency did not resettle a single Syrian refugee during this fiscal year, attributing the lower ceiling and travel restrictions as the main causes.
“Some of our participants sort of feel like their lives are on hold as they’re waiting to be reunited with their family members,” she said.
Jims Porter, policy and communications coordinator with Refugee One in Chicago, said,“It’s really increased levels of anxiety and fear about what the future holds, especially for those hoping to be reunited with their family members.”
Porter said Refugee One was expecting to resettle up to 450 refugees this year in Chicago, but has only resettled about 175.
As the number refugees the agencies can resettle drops, so does the amount of federal funding they can receive, which is calculated on a per capita basis. This funding can sometimes account for half of a program’s income, according to program officials.
This has led Refugee One and other organizations to implement staff layoffs and program restructuring.
The lowered ceiling hasn’t been the only change to rock resettlement programs.
Both Soerens and Porter said the State Department has also indicated that it will not provide federal funding to at least one of the nine national resettlement agencies, a move that could deliver another funding blow to numerous local offices.
The refugee ceiling does not guarantee that that number of people will actually be admitted into the country.
Despite a cap of 45,000 this year, for example, Porter and other resettlement officials said the U.S. has only accepted around 21,000 refugees.
He said the administration’s decision to lower the cap even further is concerning and “un-American.”
“I think that refugee resettlement represents the best of American values,” Porter said. “By signifying to the rest of the world that we are not willing to help refugees, that’s definitely an example of the U.S. forfeiting its position as a global leader in terms of humanitarian issues.”
Lakeidra Chavis is a producer and reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @lakeidrachavis.