Minnesota, one of the nation’s busiest resettlement destinations, is aiming to keep its refugee arrivals steady in 2017.
Faced with a housing shortage and other constraints, the state is forgoing a larger role in an almost 30 percent national increase the Obama administration announced earlier this fall.
Now, that Obama goal and the nation’s longer-term approach are in question as a Donald Trump administration prepares to take over. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to pause resettlement from “terror-prone regions” and took aim at Somali refugees in Minnesota. But he has not addressed the overall number of refugees the country resettles each year.
“There is complete and total uncertainty,” said Eric Schwartz, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a former federal official who oversaw refugee admissions in the Obama administration.
In the fiscal year that ended in September, Minnesota took in 2,630 refugees, a 15 percent increase over previous year. Numbers have steadily rebounded from a low of 990 in 2009.
At a time when more people have been displaced than at any point in recent history, the Obama administration increased national refugee admissions from 70,000 to 85,000 last fiscal year.
A big push to hit that goal played out nationally in the final weeks of the fiscal year. Local affiliates of the private resettlement agencies that contract with the federal government can exceed their target for the year by 10 percent without revising those contracts; many of the five Twin Cities-based affiliates did.
Ben Walen, the refugee services director at the Minnesota Council of Churches, said federal officials inquired in September whether the agency could go even further beyond the planned number. The agency said no.
“We want to be a part of the national response,” he said, “but housing continues to be a difficult thing to find, and other services continue to be impacted.”
The September resettlement push also created a backlog for required health screenings and a scramble to enroll children in school.
On the eve of two international conferences at which the United States pressed foreign governments to do more about the refugee crisis last fall, Obama announced a goal of resettling 110,000 refugees for the fiscal year now underway.
But as they have worked to finalize their targets in recent weeks, most local agencies say they are sticking with last year’s numbers. One, Arrival Ministries, committed to an increase of roughly 12 percent. Refugees from Somalia and Myanmar, also known as Burma, will likely continue to make up the bulk of arrivals.
Some agency officials said they expect they might slightly exceed these numbers — or consider a request to increase them later in the year.
At Lutheran Social Service, which again plans to resettle 430 refugees in the Twin Cities and 225 in St. Cloud, communications manager Jacqueline Nelson said the agency considered available housing, slots in English classes and its own staffing, among other factors.
“This year, we feel we are at capacity,” she said.
Kristina Hammell of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Winona says her agency is running into housing shortages in the Rochester area as well.
“If we can’t find affordable housing, we aren’t doing refugees any great favors,” she said.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services said it will receive final numbers from federal officials later this month and has no further information until then.
Politics and refugees
The past year has also seen a surge in criticism of resettlement in the state. Speakers questioning the admission of Muslim refugees have drawn growing audiences in outstate Minnesota. In the 2016 legislative session, Republican lawmakers sponsored bills that would have required an audit of federal, state, local and nonprofit resettlement expenditures, including two identical versions in the Senate because more legislators wanted to sign on as authors than the maximum of five allowed.
Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, who sponsored one of the bills, said he and constituents in the St. Cloud area have concerns about housing as well as job training and other services for arriving refugees. He said the federal government passes on too many of the costs and responsibilities of helping refugees to local communities.
“I don’t think they can take many more and do a decent job,” he said.
He said he hopes the new administration will curtail arrivals and ramp up vetting requirements for refugees.
For critics and resettlement agencies alike, much uncertainty remains about what a Trump administration will do.
Schwartz, the Humphrey School dean, said the 110,000 national number for the year is a ceiling, not a legal obligation binding the new government. Although Trump has criticized resettlement from countries including Syria and Somalia, he has not discussed the United States’ role in addressing the global migrant crisis.
Presumably, the administration could block resettlement from some regions and shift admissions to others, but that would be a significant logistical challenge, Schwartz said.
“For the U.S. to walk away from its commitments would send a confusing and damaging message,” Schwartz said.
Meanwhile, resettlement officials said they’ve had a brisk start to the fiscal year, instead of the customary lull in the first few months. More than 300 refugees arrived in Minnesota in October alone.
Jean Pierre Gatera, a native of Burundi and an Arrive Ministries client, came to the Twin Cities this fall with his wife and three children. He spent two decades in Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp, where access to health care was limited and Gatera’s children sometimes shared a classroom with as many as 100 other students.
“We are really grateful for this change,” said Gatera, who served as a full-time pastor in the camp.
In the run-up to the election and afterward, as uncertainty about the resettlement program has deepened, local agencies have seen a rise in offers of support. Arrive Ministries has doubled the number of people who put together welcome kits for recent arrivals.
“We have seen a huge upswing in the number of volunteers working with us, those hosting new refugees in their homes and those joining church teams which ‘adopt’ newly arriving refugees,” said Bob Oehrig, Arrive’s executive director.