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San Diego County refugee arrivals increase in 2019 as Trump lowers refugee arrival cap

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A van parked out the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.
(Kate Morrissey / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Trump administration’s recent announcement that it would lower the ceiling of refugees permitted into the U.S. to a historic low reflects the reduction of refugee arrivals both in San Diego County and nationwide. Now, refugee resettlement agencies and refugees are predicting fewer arrivals to the U.S. again this year.

This cap will affect not only refugees hoping to come to the U.S., but also those who are already here. Nadine Toppozada, who directs Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigrant Services in San Diego, said the new cap may prolong family separation because refugees have the right to request that their family overseas come stay with them in the U.S.

“With the cuts in number of arrivals, we have people here in San Diego waiting much longer in order to be reunited with their families who are in refugee camps across seas,” Toppozada said.

The cap has dropped down from 30,000 to 18,000 this fiscal year. It dropped from 45,000 to 30,000 last fiscal year.

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The number of refugees who came to San Diego County rose by 27% between fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019, even though President Trump lowered the ceiling by a third. This is largely because the U.S. did not bring in nearly as many refugees as it said it would in 2018.

This fiscal year, the U.S. welcomed 29,999 refugees, exactly one short of the 30,000 cap. Last year, despite the 45,000 ceiling, only 22,491 refugees resettled.

The low number of refugees in fiscal year 2018 is likely due to the travel ban that the Supreme Court upheld in December 2017, restricting most travelers from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad from coming to the U.S. and temporarily pausing the refugee resettlement program. In San Diego County, refugee arrival counts dropped immediately to single digits in the months after the ban went into effect.

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Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo remained the largest group to come to San Diego County this year, followed by Afghans, keeping the same trend from last year.

The number of Syrians arriving in the country increased to 29 this year in comparison to only two arrivals in fiscal year 2018.

Samar is one of those refugees who came from Syria this year. She does not want her last name used for fear that her family in Lebanon and Syria could be targeted.

Seven months ago, she came to San Diego from Jordan, where she had been waiting to move to the U.S. She brought her husband and her two daughters, 14 and 6, with her.

Samar and her family fled Syria’s civil war, which has raged on for nearly a decade. Before she left, she had pulled her daughter out of school and stopped going to work. She was a teacher and was so afraid her daughter’s schools would be bombed that they both stayed home.

“I prefer to stay at home, to die with all my family,” Samar said. “I prefer to stay with them. To stay together, to live together, or to die together.”

She still remembers the sounds of the war in Syria, even though she hasn’t lived there for years — the sounds of bombs, screams and violence.

Many of Samar’s siblings are still in Syria and Lebanon. When she speaks with one of her sisters in Lebanon, they talk about life in the U.S.

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“She dreams, and I hope to help her,” Samar said.

The new cap for 2020 will make it even more difficult for Samar to bring the rest of her family to the U.S.

Samar and her family were refugees in Jordan when she received her first phone call from the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, asking if they wanted to come to the U.S. That was seven years before she stepped foot in the country.

According to Donna Duvin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, the average length of time that a family spends in a refugee camp before it is offered an opportunity for resettlement is 17 years.

For Samar, the period between that first call and her arrival to the country was a time of worry, frustration and anxiety. Some days, she thought she would never make it to the U.S. At the same time, she felt stuck in Jordan. If she left, she couldn’t return. But she didn’t want to stay, either.

Today, Samar is volunteering at the IRC in San Diego, conducting driving classes for refugees. Her husband is working and her children are in school, and she dreams of owning her own business one day.

In defending the lower refugee cap to Congress, the State Department said that “the current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees.”

Its report to Congress says diplomatic tools such as foreign assistance, economic and political engagement, and alliance-building would help more people, and more quickly, than resettling refugees or granting asylum in the U.S.

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The increasingly lower ceiling is worrying to Duvin and refugee resettlement agencies like the IRC.

“It’s very disruptive,” Duvin said. “It’s a system, when you think about it, that has really been formulated to succeed over a great period of time. Now that the pace has been disrupted, the chance of seeing that system also dismantled is great, and a significant concern for all of us.”

Resettlement agencies work with partners to secure housing and employment for incoming refugees, and by drastically adjusting the number of refugees allowed in the country, relationships with their partners and the flow of the system suffer.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego is another resettlement agency heavily affected by the new cap.

“We are astounded and dismayed that the federal administration has lowered — yet again — the refugee admissions ceiling from 30,000 last year to now only 18,000 for Fiscal Year 2020,” Chief Executive Michael Hopkins said in a statement. “To repeatedly gouge this number betrays our nation’s founding principles and turns away our brothers and sisters seeking safety, freedom and hope.”

The slash in the refugee ceiling also affects funding for refugee resettlement agencies. Agencies are paid for each refugee they help resettle. With fewer refugees comes less revenue.

“At some point, you can barely sustain staff, let alone a vehicle to pick up clients from the airport,” Toppozada said.

The White House has also set priorities for certain nationalities for fiscal year 2020. The U.S. will allow 5,000 refugees under the Lautenberg Amendment, which is a program from the 1990s that includes refugee Jews from the former Soviet Union, as well as persecuted religious minorities in other countries, such as Bahais from Iran and evangelical Christians from Ukraine.

The number of Ukrainians coming to the U.S. in recent months has been increasing, specifically to Sacramento County — last year, it overtook San Diego as the top refugee resettling county.

The U.S. is also planning on bringing 4,000 Iraqis and 1,500 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It is unclear how the U.S. will track refugees from the Central American countries, as there’s not much infrastructure in place to identify refugees in the region, unlike the Middle East and Africa.

About 7,500 will be left for all other nationalities.

These priorities are a departure from previous years, as people from Africa and the Middle East have historically made up the largest groups of refugees.

Tebor writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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