Resettlement offices shrink as refugee numbers plunge

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump’s decision to shrink the nation’s refugee program has led to layoffs at resettlement agencies in Michigan, and some aid offices are preparing to suspend operations, downsize or combine with other locations.

The U.S. Department of State in December told the nine nonprofit resettlement agencies it works with nationally that the administration’s new limit on refugee admissions — down nearly 60 percent from 110,000 in 2017 to 45,000 in 2018 — means it doesn’t require such an extensive network of resettlement offices.

Offices expecting to handle fewer than 100 refugees in fiscal 2018 will no longer be authorized to resettle new arrivals, officials say. They are reviewing the proposals submitted by the resettlement agencies and plan to make final decisions in the coming weeks.

“The changes will consolidate smaller affiliates, reduce costs and simplify management structures to help the U.S. Refugee Admissions program run in a way that is fiscally responsible and sustainable in the long term,” State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said in a statement.

Under the proposal, at least 20 resettlement offices would close nationwide, including the only two in Louisiana, Reuters reported last week. It is unclear whether any offices would close in Michigan.

Refugee arrivals dropped sharply last year amid Trump’s executive orders temporarily suspending refugee resettlement in the United States. Last month, the administration boosted screening for refugees from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Somalia.

The number of refugees arriving in Michigan fell to the lowest level last year since at least 2011 with 2,520 arrivals in 2017 — down 41 percent from 4,254 in 2016 and a decline from 3,015 in 2015. Even fewer are expected this year.

Resettlement agencies say part of the reason for the drop in arrivals in Michigan and Metro Detroit is the admission of fewer refugees from Syria and Iraq — the largest nationality groups that resettled in Michigan in recent years.

Since October, the bulk of refugees arriving in Michigan have been from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Bhutan, Eritrea and Afghanistan, and they largely resettled in Ingham or Kent counties, according to state data through Feb. 15.

Michigan officials don’t yet have an estimate for how many refugees will resettle in the state during fiscal 2018, which started Oct. 1, 2017, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Typically, state officials would know this by now, but the Trump administration changed the refugee ceiling in September, forcing refugee aid groups to revise their 2018 figures and submit them for approval.

Samaritas — which used to handle the most refugee cases in Michigan — is expecting to receive 100 refugees this year, down from 932 last year including nearly 500 in Metro Detroit. Formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, Samaritas resettled about 1,400 refugees in 2016, including 904 Syrians.

“We historically had been the fourth-largest resettlement agency in the country and, in the blink of an eye, we have pretty much nothing that we’re doing,” Samaritas spokeswoman Lynne Golodner said.

The organization has cut staff, though employee levels have historically ebbed and flowed depending on the number of refugee arrivals, she said.

Agencies experience layoffs

The agency has consolidated resettlement services to two sites, down from four. Rather than receiving cases from two refugee aid groups, Samaritas will only receive them from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, according to Samaritas.

Samaritas has “frozen” operations in Ann Arbor, meaning there is no resettlement staff there, and no refugees are being sent to that office, Samaritas President Vickie Thompson-Sandy said in a statement. The office won’t close because foster care and adoption services remain available.

Samaritas’ office in Troy — where resettlement staff is down from 20 to two employees — will now manage Washtenaw County cases previously handled by the Ann Arbor site.

In west Michigan, Samaritas is in the process of consolidating its Battle Creek and Grand Rapids offices, Thompson-Sandy said.

“That does put a challenge on clients, because Samaritas resettles Burmese refugees mostly in Battle Creek, and they are starting to resettle some refugees closer to Kalamazoo. But all staff will now be in Grand Rapids, so it’s an extra strain on clients to get access to case workers,” Thompson-Sandy said.

Resettlement offices offer social services to help refugees become self-sufficient, such as locating affordable housing and enrolling in English-language classes, as well as employment services for up to five years.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants resettled 455 refugees in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties last year but expects maybe half that number this year, down from 759 refugees in 2016, said director Tawfik Alazem. The Dearborn-based agency had to lay off several staff, he said.

“We have to keep doing what we’re doing. This is not really about people who work for resettlement agencies. It’s about the refugees themselves. These people are running away from what we all fear — violence and wars. I honestly think we should keep welcoming them,” Alazem said.

Arrivals this year are “really slow,” he added. “We are waiting to see if things will improve through spring and summertime.”

Concerns grow for refugees

It’s unclear how the Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s work might be affected.

CEO Dave Bartek wouldn’t say whether his agency will have to suspend or pare its resettlement operations, noting the State Department hasn’t officially approved the reorganization plan submitted by organizations including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bartek said the bishops’ conference hasn’t notified his agency either way.

“We would be extremely disappointed for our agency, the community and the state not to be welcoming to refugees, and we continue to participate in the integration and welcoming of refugee families into our communities — work that this particular agency has been involved in for decades,” Bartek said by email.

In Lansing, St. Vincent Catholic Charities is seeing fewer arrivals than previous years but expects to resettle well over 100 refugees this year, said Judi Harris, the agency’s refugee services director.

The agency’s top refugee population is from the Congo, although it resettled people from 16 nations last year, including Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, Harris said. Employers call her agency weekly looking for workers, she said.

“We’re very concerned about the people overseas who need to be rescued and need to have a new place to live,” Harris said.

“We’re hoping people who really need to be resettled will have a place to go to be safe and to be cared for. And we know that refugees are really good for our community here.”

Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids expects to resettle between 220 and 267 refugees this year after handling 276 refugees last year, largely from the Congo, Burma and Bhutan, said Kristine Van Noord, the agency’s refugee program manager.

She noted the United States is on pace to accept far fewer than the 45,000-refugee ceiling set for 2018 by the Trump administration.

“We’re doing well here but on a national level, the number is quite down. But here, we’re ahead of the national average of how many people are arriving,” Van Noord said. “That is primarily because of the groups that are coming in.”

Freedom House, a shelter for asylum-seekers in southwest Detroit, is not affected by the State Department changes, as it does not resettle refugees, executive director Deborah Drennan said.

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, which does handle refugee resettlement cases, did not return phone calls.

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Michigan refugee arrivals

Fiscal Year


2018 through Feb. 15
















Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services