The pace of refugees arriving in Minnesota slowed markedly in recent months, even though President Trump’s executive order pausing resettlement remains mired in the courts.
Arrivals hit a low of 66 statewide in March, roughly one-fifth the level of a year ago, before rebounding slightly in April. Somalis, who last fall were a majority of refugees in the state, made up less than a quarter of last month’s arrivals, based on new data from the State Department.
For Minnesota’s resettlement agencies, the result has been layoffs and anxious calls from former clients worried about reuniting with family members still in the resettlement pipeline. For critics of refugee resettlement, the continued arrivals nationally — still in the thousands each month, including people from countries singled out for additional travel restrictions — are a disappointment.
The reasons for the slowdown are not entirely clear, and a bipartisan group of senators this month wrote Trump officials to demand an explanation.
“There’s a great deal of uncertainty on all sides,” said June Jordan, head of resettlement at Catholic Charities, one of five Twin Cities agencies that contract with the federal government.
It may be that resettlement officials in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., are scheduling travel more conservatively, in case the courts uphold the president’s suspension and a lower annual limit, local officials said.
“So many were caught off guard when the first executive order came out,” said Micaela Schuneman, refugee services director at the International Institute of Minnesota. “We are trying to avoid that scenario again.”
More clarity might take some time: Key appeals court hearings on Trump’s order are taking place this month, but the cases are probably headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Resettlement agencies in Minnesota and nationally were uncommonly busy last fall, at the start of the federal fiscal year, and rapidly moved toward the annual limit that former President Barack Obama had raised from 85,000 to 110,000 refugees; the refugee total so far this fiscal year is 42,000.
But since Trump’s January executive order suspending resettlement and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and then a revised order in March, arrivals slowed down rapidly.
In April, 86 refugees arrived in Minnesota, down from more than 300 in October. Nationally, the number fell in March to the lowest level since 2013. In Minnesota, newcomers from Myanmar increased last month, outpacing the Somali arrivals. Agencies also resettled 11 refugees from Congo, and more are expected.
In his orders, Trump lowered the limit to 50,000 refugees per year. That move is contested in one court challenge, meaning the Obama ceiling still stands, though Trump could lower it separately from the executive order.
Apart from the court standoff, there is speculation that federal vetting of new refugees is grinding to a halt. A recent Washington Post article cited Homeland Security officials who said their department has stopped interviewing refugees overseas — a key prerequisite for resettlement.
Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries in Richfield, said that long before refugees fly to Minnesota, the resettlement agency signs an “assurance form,” vouching to the feds for its ability to place a refugee.
“We have been getting virtually no new assurances,” he said. “There are fewer people in the pipeline.”
Eric Schwartz, outgoing dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School and a former Obama administration resettlement official, said the uncertainty is “deeply troubling.”
“If the administration has decided that the way they are going to implement the executive order is simply to stop interviewing people,” he said, “then they will succeed in thwarting the intent of the courts.”
Calling resettlement “a critical pillar of our national foreign policy,” 11 U.S. Senate Democrats and five Republicans wrote the administration last week seeking answers about its plans.
But for those who cheered Trump’s move, the monthly arrivals are frustrating. At the Golden Valley-based Center of the American Experiment, Vice President Kim Crockett says Minnesota could still hit the 2,200 to 2,300 range of some recent years.
Crockett has pressed for a fuller accounting of state and local resettlement costs. She said the executive order would have offered an opening to explore both cost and the cultural integration of refugees. The recent case of a Michigan doctor charged after performing genital mutilation on two Minnesota girls revived such questions, she said.
“Minnesota is culturally predisposed to generously offer our home to all strangers, no matter their religion or culture,” she said. “But we are naive if we think new arrivals can easily assimilate and become productive citizens.”
At local resettlement agencies, loss of federal funding that comes with refugees has led to some layoffs and unfilled openings. The International Institute, for one, laid off two full-time employees on its resettlement team and shifted two to other roles.
Meanwhile, local families are calling to inquire about the delays for their relatives. At the time of Trump’s first order, Catholic Charities had 11 cases of individuals or families booked for flights to Minnesota, Jordan said. Five have arrived. Still waiting is the adult son of a Kurdish family from Iraq the agency resettled earlier this winter. His family says they fear he is a target for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria because word has gotten out that his parents and siblings now live in the United States. The man is in hiding, debating whether to drop his resettlement bid and flee Iraq.
“He is in a tough spot — in danger but doesn’t know if he should stay or go,” Jordan said.
When Janvier Ndakorwa, a Congolese refugee, found out he was slated to travel to Minnesota from Burundi in late February, he was skeptical. The first executive order had stalled an earlier plan for Catholic Charities to resettle him — after he had already given away a camera and laptop he used for part-time work as a videographer. He braced for at least four more months of waiting and cheered Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s challenge to the January order.
He arrived in the Twin Cities aware he might have slipped through a narrow window and anxious about when his parents and brother might join him. Now his focus is on the daunting task of finding a job and starting over.
“People in Africa think when you come here everything is easy and money grows on trees,” he said. “They are wrong.”