Tighter U.S. screening holds refugees back, but summer should see more arriving here.
Just before midnight recently, Mesfin Tsegay, left, case manager with the International Institute of Minnesota, took Iraqi refugee Kareem Al Jaber to his new apartment in St. Paul. Tsegay carried with him a hot meal to leave with Al Jaber on his first night alone in his new country.
Fewer feet are stepping across Minnesota's welcome mat.
Stricter screening measures for refugees hoping to enter the United States from countries deemed a security risk have allowed fewer people to reach Minnesota from hot spots around the world.
The total number of refugees arriving in the state dropped from 2,107 in the 12 months ending in September 2010 to 1,856 in the 12 months ending in September 2011, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
So far, only 758 refugees entering the U.S. have landed in Minnesota in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2011.
The slowdown has led to fewer students in English language classes and more families waiting to be reunited with loved ones stuck in the refugee processing backlog.
It's also created some unexpected benefits, such as giving case managers at refugee resettlement agencies more time to work with each new arrival.
Workers at both state and federal refugee agencies predict the numbers of new arrivals to Minnesota will pick up soon as the government fine-tunes the new screening process in time for summer, historically the busy season for refugee resettlement work.
"What we've been told is to expect a busy summer," said Amanda Smith, refugee services director at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of six local agencies that receives new refugees and helps them get settled in their new home.
She said her organization told federal officials they would be willing to accept 440 new refugees this year but so far, they've only resettled 173 people. She doubts they will reach the 440 mark by the end of September. "That would mean resettling 75 to 100 people a month for the rest of the year and that's not good for anybody. We don't have the capacity to do that here," she said.
Federal officials define refugees as foreign-born people who can't return to their native country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, more than 3 million refugees have been admitted into the United States.
Each year, the president consults with Congress to set a limit on the number of refugees who may be admitted into the country. The current refugee ceiling is 76,000.
Those granted refugee status overseas by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are brought to the United States for resettlement. Volunteer agencies in Minnesota then work with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to help integrate the newcomers into society.
For years, Minnesota has been a magnet for waves of refugees from around the world. Its reputation as a haven for the persecuted was established in large part by the state's faith and nonprofit groups.
"We had a very strong faith community who saw what was going on in different parts of the world and stepped forward and said we could be a safe place," said Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services's Children and Family Services, which oversees the state's refugee resettlement program. "It has built and grown over the years. This work has been going on for over 30 years in Minnesota."
The recent decline in refugee numbers nationally and locally began nearly two years ago, after U.S. officials sought to tighten screening process for refugees coming from Iraq mainly, but it also has affected refugees from Somalia.
Minnesota receives more refugees from Myanmar and Somalia than from any other place.
'Some unfortunate delays'
"We have a responsibility not just to offer a safe place, a new home for refugees coming to the United States, but we also have to make sure that all who enter do not pose a threat to our country's security," said Deborah Sisbarro, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "So in response to credible threat information that emerged in 2010 we had to enhance the security screening process for our refugee resettlement program.
"Because of these added layers of review, the program has moved more slowly than we would have wanted to. It has created some unfortunate delays and it has lowered the number overall of refugees that we were able to admit in the last fiscal year."
The government is working to make the screening process more efficient to eliminate the backlog. "We're optimistic some of these delays are being resolved and hopefully we'll see the number of refugees we're able to admit increase," Sisbarro said.
Smith said she believes despite the recent slowdown, Minnesota's reputation as a safe haven for refugees will remain strong.
"It does continue to be a place that refugees want to come to. One, because the ethnic communities here have been very successful, and because Minnesotans and the ethnic communities that are here have created a very welcoming environment for refugees," she said.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488