Refugee services threatened due to squeeze on intake

Caritas refugee info event

While the number of refugees and people seeking asylum around the world is at its highest point in history, the Trump administration has been steadily decreasing the number allowed in the United States.

In Central Texas, local nonprofit Caritas of Austin had resettled about 500 refugees annually in previous years. But funding for those services is tied to the number of refugees that come in — a one-time, per-refugee payment reimbursed by the federal government — and less funding has led to layoffs, bigger caseloads and threats to the very existence of Caritas and other nonprofits that resettle refugees.

Funding serves to support not just newly arrived refugees, but also those who arrived before who still need support. While supplemented by other grants and donations, support services are increasingly being squeezed. In Florida, for example, 12 of its 25 refugee resettlement offices have closed in the past year due to this change. Whether Central Texas resettlement nonprofits will have to close is unknown, says Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas. “Our plan is to keep a core program in place so that we can weather the political storm that we’re in right now,” she said.

Last year, the White House capped annual admissions at 45,000, the lowest since 1980. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the annual ceiling was 110,000. The new cap led Caritas to budget for 283 arrivals this fiscal year, said Lindsey Dickson, communications manager for Caritas. “Five months into the fiscal year, it has become clear that nationally and locally, it is highly unlikely we will come close to reaching this number,” Dickson said.

In this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, Caritas of Austin has served just over 100 newly arrived refugees, the majority being special immigrant visas from Afghanistan. Those are individuals who served as interpreters for the U.S. military, a priority group.

On Wednesday, April 25, Caritas hosted an information session to share with the community the devastating impact of the administration’s decisions. In explaining the services Caritas provides, Mamadou Balde, Caritas’ resettlement program manager, said that refugee resettlement can be an expensive and intensive process, involving professionals who support refugees in finding housing, employment, schools, medical care, and in general, acclimating them to the American way of life. “It’s a comprehensive service,” said Quinn. “Our goal is to help them become a stable member of the community.”

But higher caseloads per social worker can affect the quality of services. For example, the team that helps refugees find and maintain employment at Caritas has shrunk from 13 to four people in the past year, and caseloads have swelled from 50 to 60 to now 85 active cases per social worker.

“We do need money to make it through this year,” said Quinn. “But at the same time, it’s not just a money problem. It’s the decrease in the number of refugees coming into Austin that’s the problem, and we’re powerless to do anything about that.”

 

Photo: Jo Kathryn Quinn at an April 25 event to discuss the refugee crisis. 

NOTE: A version of this article was published in the Austin American-Statesman on April 29, 2018.
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