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SoCal resettlement agencies cut back as refugees admitted to US dwindles

FILE: A Syrian refugee boy stands outside his tent at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria.
FILE: A Syrian refugee boy stands outside his tent at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria.
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/Landov

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Refugee admissions into the United States have slowed to a trickle following changes to entry requirements under the Trump administration, forcing some Southern California refugee service agencies to shut down their resettlement operations.

Because the agencies' resettlement funding depends on their caseload, several had to make difficult decisions, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles among them.

As of Dec. 1, Jewish Family Service suspended its refugee resettlement program. For decades, the agency has helped resettle refugees from places like Iran, Afghanistan, and the former Soviet Union, all fleeing war, persecution and other crises.

"With the new rules, that pipeline shut down temporarily, and then, more completely," said Margaret Avineri, who directs the agency's refugee resettlement program.

Federal data shows a steep decline in refugee admisions: Only 3,108 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in October and November of this year compared with 18,300 in the same months last year.

Avineri said her agency typically resettles about 110 refugees a year. This past year, it resettled only 37.

Many of its cases came through what's called the Lautenberg program, which assists refugees who are religious minorities, mostly from Iran. They travel from Iran to the United States via Austria, which earlier this year stopped granting the refugees transit visas in light of President Trump's travel restrictions.

While the agency processed about 100 refugee family applications in the past year, they are still pending approval, Avineri said. That affected the program directly and financially since the agency is funded based on the refugees they resettle, she said.

"Now that the pipeline has basically dried up, there is no one waiting in Vienna that we have processed. We were unable to continue the services, so we had to suspend the program.” 

Although the fiscal year 2017 refugee ceiling set by the Obama administration was initially 110,000, a number that the Trump administration eventually halved, the admission rate for this year is still low in comparison with other years: 9,040 refugees were admitted during October and November of 2015, and 12,046 during those months in 2014.

In January, President Trump sought to temporarily suspend refugee entries. After legal challenges and a Supreme Court decision, a 120-day partial suspension went into effect in June for refugees who lacked close family ties in the U.S.

This suspension was lifted in late October. But the Trump administration immediately initiated a 90-day review period, during which refugees from 11 unnamed countries are being subjected to additional scrutiny because federal officials say they pose security risks.

A State Department spokeswoman said Thursday that refugee applicants from these countries were being evaluated on a "case-by-case basis." 

She said while refugee admissions have slowed, she added this doesn't necessarily mean the department will fall short of the 45,000 refugee ceiling set by the Trump administration for the current fiscal year.

"It would be premature to assess fiscal year 2018's pace at this point," the official said, but added the number set by the Trump administration is "a ceiling, not a quota."

Meanwhile, some resettlement agencies have seen deep funding cuts as cases have dwindled. Earlier this year, World Relief closed several offices around the country and laid off staff.

Refugee program manager Jose Serrano with World Relief's Garden Grove office said his agency hasn’t resettled any refugees since June.

The office is staying open, he said, but it has since shifted its focus to immigrant integration and legal services, "which still includes refugees, because refugees apply for green cards after their one year of admission to the United States," Serrano said.

Even for larger agencies, resettlement operations have slowed.

"We are dramatically down from years past," said Martin Zogg, executive director of  the International Rescue Committee's Los Angeles office. "In this first quarter, we have seen fewer than 50 arrivals. Typically, 50 would be a slow month for us."  

Zogg said with careful planning and some employee attrition, they've gotten by with available funding. The agency plans to continue local resettlement efforts, "but with far fewer refugees coming in," he said.

Avineri with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles said staffers who worked in refugee resettlement have been assigned to other duties. The agency has worked with its national partner, HIAS, to ensure that no cases fall through the cracks.

She said the agency will continue to offer social services to refugee families and the community. The agency provides several services, including those covering mental health, elder support and food distribution.

"We are still here, that is our main message," Avineri said. "And who knows — we can hope that perhaps something will turn around, and that we can pick that mantle up and keep going."