Federal review aims to improve refugee system

Recognizing that the United States is failing thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn countries, the Obama administration is conducting the first thorough review of the refugee resettlement system in 30 years and plans to announce major reforms this summer.

Officials say the system is outdated and lacks adequate resources to help refugees find jobs and support themselves before exhausting their benefits. That task has been made more difficult by the recession and high unemployment.

“The basic set-up of the program hasn’t been altered in many years,” said National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang. “It was time to take a fresh look.”

Several changes have already been made to ease the transition for newcomers, most of whom have no U.S. work experience, little savings and limited English skills. The largest numbers of refugees last year — admitted based on persecution or fear of persecution — came from Iraq, Bhutan and Burma.

In January, the State Department doubled the amount of money, from $900 to $1,800, that resettlement agencies receive to cover housing and other needs for each refugee in the first month. And the Department of Health and Human Services has requested an additional $25 million from Congress for case management and emergency housing in 2011.

One of the most significant proposals being considered would extend federal cash aid for eligible refugees past the eight-month maximum. Officials are also discussing ways to improve coordination among the various government agencies that share responsibility for resettlement and to expand medical screening and cultural orientation.

Resettlement agencies said reforms are long overdue.

“The system is broken,” said Robert Carey, chairman of Refugee Council USA, an umbrella group of resettlement and advocacy groups. “There are women who can’t feed their children adequately and people who are really being brought into poverty. … There is a federal obligation in this to ensure that people brought in here are given the basic tools to rebuild their lives.”

Larh Larh Sin, from Myanmar, spent more than a decade in a Thai refugee camp without electricity or running water before being resettled in Bakersfield in 2008 with her husband and two sons, now 4 and 7. About 10 months after her arrival, Sin, 30, got a factory job but was laid off because she didn’t speak enough English to understand the safety instructions. A few months later, she found work at a Chinese restaurant but lost it when the restaurant closed last month. Her husband is also out of work.

They received an eviction notice this month because they couldn’t pay the $665 rent. Sin said she planned to apply for cash assistance but knew it wouldn’t cover the bills, and she worried about becoming homeless.

“If I had known the situation I wouldn’t have come,” she said through an interpreter. “For me, a refugee camp is a little better situation than here because I don’t have to worry about rent.”

When the system was established by Congress in 1980, the U.S. was responding to an influx of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia, said Eskinder Negash, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Today, the caseload is more diverse and a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer effective, he said. In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. accepted nearly 75,000 refugees from more than 70 countries, including many with special needs, such as single mothers and torture victims.

The system assumes that all new arrivals will be supporting themselves within a short period. But with the economic downturn, refugees often take months to find work.

In a speech this spring, Eric Schwartz, the assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, said refugees were dealing with severe problems “that go well beyond the challenges that any new arrival should have to confront.”

Some refugees qualify for a federal job-seeking program that includes up to six months of cash assistance. But the Department of Health and Human Services, which supports the program with matching grants from private aid agencies, only has funding to cover about a third of the eligible refugees, Carey said.

The amount of public assistance refugees are offered varies among states and often doesn’t cover basic needs. In San Diego, a family of four typically receives about $828 a month compared with $335 a month in Phoenix, according to resettlement workers. Families with children are covered by the same welfare programs as American citizens, while those with no children receive federal cash and medical assistance specific to refugees. All refugees are eligible for food stamps.

In some states, numerous refugees have fallen behind on rent and received eviction notices. Without family to turn to for help, they rely on overburdened resettlement agencies. During the recession, those agencies have struggled to raise funds.

The arrival of more than 32,000 Iraqis in 2008 and 2009 helped bring attention to the difficulties faced by refugees.

“They came at a time of economic decline, which really exacerbated a system that was already teetering on disaster,” said Elizabeth Campbell, senior advocate with Refugees International, an independent advocacy organization.

In hard-hit Detroit, thousands of Iraqi refugees quickly overwhelmed nonprofits and local institutions. “The community was not prepared,” said Jeralda Hattar, program manager with the local Catholic services. “The school district was not prepared. The health system was not prepared.”

Responding to requests from resettlement agencies, the State Department no longer places refugees in Detroit — or in Fort Wayne, Ind. — if they do not have immediate family members already living there.

The National Security Council, which is heading the review, began meeting last summer with several government agencies, including the departments of State and Health and Human Services, and has consulted with refugee advocates.

In addition, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill this spring that would adjust the initial refugee grant each year based on the cost of living. And Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is trying to raise support for a bill that would extend cash and medical assistance for 18 months, help refugee professionals recertify in the U.S. and establish an emergency fund to meet unanticipated resettlement needs.

In Phoenix, refugees who arrived during a strong economy quickly found work in the state’s many resorts and retail outlets. But when Saba Abdullah arrived in April last year, work had dried up. Abdullah, 31, fled Iraq after two close relatives were injured and her husband was kidnapped. She does not know if he is alive.

Alone, with three children to support, the college-educated woman applied for jobs as a cleaner and nanny but wasn’t offered anything. The $335 a month she receives in cash assistance covers less than half her rent. When she received an eviction notice in April, she thought she would end up on the streets.

But with the additional federal and local funding that has become available, resettlement workers with the International Rescue Committee have been able to keep refugees like Abdullah in their homes. This month, she moves into subsidized housing that will cost her a fraction of what she previously paid.

“I was saved at the last minute,” she said. “But for the rest of the refugees it’s still a problem.”