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Minnesota refugee resettlement agencies cutting staff in wake of Trump immigration orders

While layoffs are inevitable for most resettlement organizations, executives say they are trying to redeploy most employees to other service programs within the organizations. 

President Donald Trump signing the original travel ban Executive Order on January 27 at the Pentagon.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In response to President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigrant and refugee streams into the United States, resettlement agencies in Minnesota are facing significant funding cuts and layoffs.  

The St. Paul-based International Institute of Minnesota, for example, has eliminated two staff members, demoted another to part-time and moved others to non-resettlement programs of the organization.

At Arrive Ministries, a resettlement agency based in Richfield, managers say they expect to cut two full-time positions if the executive order remains in place. “The needs of refugees don’t go away even if the federal funding gets cut,” said Jane Graupman, executive director of the institute. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the office of refugee resettlement budget. It makes people like us nervous.” 

The two nonprofit organizations are among five local refugee resettlement agencies who are bracing for uncertain financial futures under the new administration, which has cut the number of legal refugees coming to the country in half and has barred travelers from selected majority-Muslim countries. 

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That uncertainty became even more pronounced last week, when the White House released a revised immigration order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” suspending all refugee admissions for four months and temporarily barring individuals from Somalia, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan from entry to the U.S. — effective March 16. 

This order means refugee resettlement organizations will receive no refugee arrivals through mid-July — except for a handful of families and individuals who have already undergone the immigration vetting process and are scheduled to come to the U.S. during the moratorium period. 

Past and present refugee resettlements 

The executive order also caps the number of annual refugee admissions at 50,000, a limit that marks the lowest since the early 2000s, when resettlement figures dipped down as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.

Historically, annual refugee admissions have varied from year to year. In 1980, Congress created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program, which limited the number of refugee arrivals to 50,000 but granted presidents the power to increase that number. Soon after, President Ronald Reagan ordered the entry of more than 200,000 refugees, many of whom had escaped violence and persecution in Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

 A little over a decade later, during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, the administration accepted more than 130,000 refugees as renewed violent conflicts, economic crises and political turmoil took hold in many parts of the world.

In the 2016 fiscal year ending in September, the U.S. government resettled nearly 85,000 refugees, the largest group admitted during the Obama administration. “An additional 31,143 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. from Oct. 1 through Jan. 24, including more than 1,136 refugee admissions since Trump became president on Jan. 20,” another Pew Center report states.

The report adds: “Though refugee admissions would drastically drop under Trump’s proposal, the U.S. had been on pace to reach the Obama administration’s goal of admitting 110,000 refugee in fiscal 2017, which would have been the highest number since 1994.” 

When Trump took office in January, however, he reduced that number to 50,000, forcing local and national resettlement agency leaders to eliminate jobs and restructure programs. “It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen and when we’ll start seeing refugees in any numbers again,” said Arrive Ministries Executive Director Bob Oehrig. “Nobody knows … how quickly after the four-month moratorium there will be additional refugees coming.” 

Refugee agencies cut staff positions 

In 2015 and 2016, local agencies resettled a little over 5,000 refugees from Somalia, Burma, Iraq and Ethiopia — among other countries — across the Twin Cities metro counties, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. 

Since 2007, as detailed in the data, the state has welcomed more than 21,000 refugees, who have put down roots mostly in Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties — and established political and business ties in the Twin Cities and beyond.      

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This year, though, it’s hard to predict the number of refugees who will come to Minnesota. Resettlement organization executives say they expect a much smaller number than what they had received in recent years. “We were planning for 600 refugees to arrive,” said Graupman, of the International Institute of Minnesota. “Now, we’ll be lucky to get 200, 300 refugees.” 

The cut is likely to cost resettlement organizations, which receive federal funding for each refugee they help, hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The executive order will have a direct impact on us and on refugees we were planning to resettle,” said Laurie Ohmann, a vice president with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “It is still too early to know exactly what the order means, but we will continue to evaluate the order’s impact to our work and what the future looks like.”  

While layoffs are inevitable for most of these organizations, executives say they plan to redeploy most employees to other service programs within the organizations — programs like career training, English classes and medical services. And many who feared their positions were prone to elimination sought out employment opportunities elsewhere when Trump signed the first immigration order in January, said Maureen Warren, chief family service officer of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. 

“They have families to take care of,” she said. “They didn’t want any interruption.”