Minnesota took in just 663 refugees last year, the lowest number in more than a decade for a state with a history of accepting several thousand people annually.

The number of refugees is expected to fall even further in 2019 as the Trump administration limits how many people the U.S. will accept. The drastic decrease has prompted concern among families here waiting to reunite with relatives abroad and pushed business owners who rely on refugee labor to turn elsewhere for workers at a time of low unemployment.

"We have a huge number of people that are waiting to able to come or at least reunify with their extended families who are already here," said Eh Tah Khu, co-executive director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota that serves refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma). "This decrease in the amount that they allow to resettle is concerning."

Myanmar is one of the biggest sources of refugees to the U.S. and Minnesota, but last year the state accepted just 318 — roughly half the annual number in recent years. Tah Khu said many Karen people, an ethnic minority long persecuted by the Burmese military, are now waiting longer in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

"Some of the people that have submitted their applications and have been interviewed once or twice, they are still not able to come yet," said Tah Khu.

A broader count of refugees and people in similar positions kept by the state Department of Health indicates that this could be the lowest number of refugees resettled in Minnesota in one year since at least the 1970s.

After a slowdown in refugee resettlement following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush maintained a ceiling allowing up to 70,000 refugees to resettle in the U.S. annually. President Barack Obama continued that policy and then bumped the limit up to 85,000 and eventually 110,000 amid the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

As a result, Minnesota's new refugee arrivals surged to 3,059 in 2016.

Trump issued an executive order shortly after taking office that suspended the refugee program for four months while reviewing its screening process, saying he wanted to keep out terrorists. He dropped the refugee cap for the next fiscal year to 45,000 — the lowest since 1980.

Supporters of the move said the cost of screening and resettling refugees was too high. Last fall, Trump lowered the cap further to 30,000.

Needs and costs

More than 25 million refugees have fled persecution around the globe, according to the United Nations, and the number of displaced people is at its highest level since World War II. Most refugees are from impoverished, developing countries, and more than half are children.

"At a time when there's the greatest need, the U.S. has shown less compassion and less response," said Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to refugees and immigrants.

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which resettles more refugees than any other organization in the state, said it had reduced its number of employees serving refugees from 24 to 18 in the past two years. Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis shuttered its refugee resettlement program last year.

Maureen Warren, who oversees refugee services for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, said there are distressed people waiting for loved ones who have been approved for resettlement but are not coming because of the change in policy.

"They are sad for their families," Warren said. "We hear them say, 'It wasn't like this when I arrived.' "

The Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, has called for a moratorium on refugee resettlement in recent years and has raised concerns that taxpayers don't have good information on how much it costs them. The center's vice president, Kim Crockett, noted Minnesota is still a top destination for thousands more refugees who originally resettled in other states.

"The United States needs immigrants for a variety of reasons, and I think we have to be thoughtful about how we go about that," she said. "One of the reasons … why the president's message about slowing that down is resonating with voters is that Americans have this sense that Congress and past administrations have no respect for the impact that immigration has had on the average taxpaying American."

Seasonal labor shortage

Joe Bailey of St. Paul-based Bailey Nurseries contends that the drop in refugees is harmful to businesses that rely on seasonal labor.

Bailey Nurseries turned to Karen refugees in 2011 to work seasonal jobs after struggling to find American-born workers. The firm once employed 250 Karen people; that's fallen by half.

Under the Trump administration's stricter refugee policies, Bailey Nurseries has turned to Mexican employees on guest worker visas to help supply seasonal labor.

"We'd much rather hire local workers from the local community," said Bailey.

At the company's office in Newport, a brightly colored map of Myanmar hangs on the wall, and employee bulletin boards and a TV screen feature notices in English, Spanish and Karen. Over the years, many refugees have moved up to year-round positions or jobs in other industries as they learn more English and gain experience.

Bailey exchanges several Karen words with the staff, greeting them with "ghaw luh a ghay" (good morning) and thanking them, "ta bluh." He quizzes Myint Soe, a Karen refugee taking his citizenship test in a few days: Who was the first American president?

"George Washington," Soe, 27, answers with a smile. His father and siblings are still stuck in refugee camps, wondering how they can get to the U.S.

"My brother, he's always asking me about it," said Soe.

Karen music — slow and lyrical — tempered the loud whir of fans as warehouse workers huddled over tying machines bundled together slim paper birch trees and loaded them onto long carts. They wore hoods or caps to stay warm; the warehouse was kept at a steady 36 degrees.

Ahmay Pawkuwah, who has worked her way up to crew leader since starting as a seasonal worker at Bailey's in 2013, said she enjoys working with plants after planting cilantro, tomatoes and other vegetables in the Thai refugee camp where she grew up. She's never been to Myanmar; she knows what it looks like only through photos on Google.

Now 27, she arrived in Minnesota as a refugee in 2008. She married another Karen refugee, had three children and became a U.S. citizen. She spoke cheerfully about the freedom she enjoys here. Yet her in-laws are languishing in a refugee camp in Thailand. They know their grandchildren only through FaceTime.

"A lot of my family wants to come," she said, "but they cannot come now."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210