The year ahead is shaping up to be sluggish for refugee arrivals in Minnesota.
President Donald Trump this fall set the maximum number of refugees nationally at 45,000 for the fiscal year, slashing that ceiling by more than half. But more recent administration guidelines could mean an especially marked slowdown in Minnesota, traditionally one of the country’s key resettlement destinations.
Even as it rolls out more intense vetting for all refugees, the United States is extending a pause on arrivals from 11 countries, including Somalia, a top country for refugees coming to this state. The administration also suspended indefinitely a program known as “follow-to-join,” used by many refugees resettled here to reunite with spouses and children.
“In my office, I am prepared for a big cut,” said Michelle Eberhard, who leads refugee services at Arrive Ministries, one of five Twin Cities resettlement agencies. “I would be really surprised if we get even close to that 45,000 number nationally.”
Advocates and resettlement officials decry the changes, which they say mean vulnerable people as well as family members already settled here will face longer waits and uncertainty.
Some local critics of resettlement counter that the pace of arrivals had picked up too much under former President Barack Obama, who increased annual refugee admissions to 110,000 in his final year in office.
Refugee arrivals have already slumped in the first year of the Trump administration.
That included a four-month freeze on all resettlement last summer, from which the U.S. Supreme Court exempted refugees with close family ties in the United States. A Supreme Court ruling last week that allowed, for now, travel restrictions on eight countries doesn’t apply to refugees, who are the subject of a separate presidential order.
Big drop from 2016
About 1,620 refugees came to Minnesota during the federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, down more than 40 percent from the previous year. Comparing calendar year numbers is even starker: By the end of 2017, fewer than 950 refugees will have arrived in Minnesota, compared with more than 3,000 in 2016.
This fall, the Minnesota Department of Human Services got word from the feds that they were projecting 1,385 refugees would come to the state during the fiscal year. But that forecast was based on the expectation that Trump would set the national ceiling at 50,000. Trump went further in reducing the cap to 45,000, the lowest since 1980. Minnesota officials are still waiting for a revised state projection.
Meanwhile, as the four-month pause to resettlement ended this fall, Trump signed a new executive order restarting refugee admissions with more stringent vetting. New guidelines could have a disproportionate effect on Minnesota, which came in sixth nationally in a recent Pew study for its share of refugees resettled since 2002.
Arrivals from 11 countries will remain on hold for at least three more months as the administration continues to review security measures. Among them are Somalia, which in 2016 accounted for 45 percent of Minnesota arrivals, and Iraq, with a growing number of refugees resettled here. Lutheran Social Service, another local resettlement agency, anticipates refugees in coming months will come from Bhutan, Myanmar, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Russia and Ukraine.
The new guidelines also suspended the so-called “follow-to-join” program, which allows refugees resettled within the past two years to sponsor spouses and unmarried children. Officials here do not know exactly what share of refugees arrive in Minnesota through the program, which the administration said raised concerns because relatives undergo less extensive vetting. But family reunification dominates resettlement in the state.
“That’s going to have a big impact,” said Micaela Schuneman, director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota. “We have quite a few of those cases pending.”
All refugees will undergo more extensive vetting, providing more information about relatives as well as contact information going back 10 instead of five years. The new rules apply to refugees already cleared for travel, putting their cases on hold.
The current fiscal year has started out slowly: a total of 76 refugee arrivals in October and November, a small fraction of the more than 600 during the same months in 2016. Most local resettlement agencies say their 2018 arrival forecasts remain murky.
Lutheran Social Service projects placing 200 people in the Twin Cities and 225 in St. Cloud. With 24 arrivals so far and roughly a dozen more expected in coming months, hitting that target is in question, but the agency says it remains optimistic.
Resettlement critics in the state have welcomed the new administration’s approach. State Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who co-sponsored legislation to audit state and local refugee resettlement costs, says some communities have struggled to absorb new arrivals. Nornes, who serves on the House’s education finance and higher education committees, says he has heard from teachers who say their schools are scrambling to meet the needs of students with limited English and formal education.
“I would agree with the administration’s plan to scale back,” Nornes said. “There has to be some order in it and some common sense.”
The president has noted in a couple of his executive orders that more than 300 people who arrived as refugees have been subjects of FBI counterterrorism investigations. The government has released no information about these probes.
Administration critics have decried the added security measures as arbitrary, pointing out the United States has long vetted refugees much more thoroughly than other travelers. They say Trump’s restrictions come as more people are displaced than ever in modern history, and they send a harmful message of retrenchment to U.S. allies. Last week, the Trump administration withdrew from a United Nations pact on protecting refugees.
Here in Minnesota, says Jackie Nelson at Lutheran Social Service, “These recent executive orders are disheartening for families who have been separated from loved ones — some for many years.”
Khadar Abdullahi, who was resettled in Minnesota as a teen in 2006, expected his uncle and aunt back in August, but the couple have run into a string of delays. The uncle, “a second father” to Abdullahi, has lived in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya since 1992. Abdullahi was born and grew up there after his family fled Somalia’s civil war, and he worries about deteriorating conditions in the camp. He is also concerned about the health of his uncle after a bout with bacterial meningitis last year.
“It’s really frustrating,” Abdullahi said. “We were hoping he would be here by now, getting the medical help he needs.”