Michigan sees sharp drop in refugees

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
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The United States is on track to take in the fewest refugees in four decades, with experts blaming President Donald Trump’s executive orders banning arrivals from several majority-Muslim countries, cutting the cap on admissions and suspending a program to reunite families split in the resettlement pipeline.

The steep decline is reflected in southeast Michigan, where refugee-friendly cities such as Troy and Sterling Heights have seen resettlements that once averaged hundreds per year drop to single digits.

For thousands of refugee families already building new lives in the United States, the changes are playing out in decidedly unnerving and uneven ways. The restrictions have kept many families apart, while allowing some to reunite, sorting people by country and effectively by religion.

Azmy Bashe was lucky. The Baghdad native was able to reunite with his brother in Oak Park and give his wife and two young sons a peaceful Christmas in Michigan last year after escaping Iraq in September. ISIS occupied their village in 2014.

“It took more than three years for us to leave everything behind — our home, jobs, relatives — just to find safety and now that’s all we have, but it’s all we need,” said Bashe, 54.

Azmy Bashe (left) and his wife Liqaa Darder speaks about leaving Iraq with their two sons Sader and Sror during an interview from their Oak Park home on Friday March 23, 2018
  (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

For many, Trump’s immigration policies have shaken their expectations of whether the United States can be the answer to their prayers.

“There’s certainly a pretty dramatic shift” in the mix and number of refugees being allowed in, said Kathleen Newland, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The U.S. is on pace to take in the smallest number of refugees since Congress passed a law in 1980 creating the modern resettlement system.

At the current rate, the U.S. will take in about 21,000 refugees this fiscal year, well below the cap of 45,000 set by the administration and roughly a quarter of those granted entry in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Southeast Michigan is among the largest resettlement hubs in the United States. An average of 3,000 refugees a year — 30,000 in the last decade — found haven here. The Bashes appear to be part of a waning trend of resettlement in Michigan. Only 318 refugees have successfully relocated to Michigan between Oct.1 and March 15, according to refugee data compiled by the Associated Press.

Of the 318 refugees who have resettled in the state, just 10 have been from Iraq and Syria.

Troy and Sterling Heights have seen the biggest impact, especially the decrease of Iraqi refugees. Troy’s five-year average was almost 225 Iraqi refugees this far into the year; for Sterling Heights, the average was 170. But this year, the cities have seen only two each, according to the AP data.

“As of October, we have had 12 families and individuals resettle in southeast Michigan,” said Vickie Thompson-Sandy, president of Samaritas, a Michigan-based refugee resettlement agency. “At this rate, projections are 36 for the year.”

In 2017, more than 2,536 refugees arrived in Michigan, almost half of the 4,258 who arrived the year before.

In citing security concerns to exclude refugees from certain countries, Newland said, the administration has skewed the ethnic and religious makeup of the much smaller number allowed entry. About 15 percent of refugees admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year are Muslim, down from 47 percent a year ago, federal figures show.

Federal officials, however, say there is no preference for refugees of one religion over another: “The United States is committed to assisting people of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities who are fleeing persecution, violence, and other drivers of displacement,” according to the State Department. The administration resumed a program to reunify refugee families in December, responding to a judge’s injunction.

Drastic reductions

The administration is also cutting the resettlement system itself, telling executives of nine private agencies they must close any office expected to place fewer than 100 refugees this year.

“Resettlement agencies are funded when a refugee arrives,” Thompson-Sandy said. “When your numbers are as low as 36 from more than 1,300 per year, we have to reduce our staffing.”

Samaritas has closed offices in Ann Arbor, downsized in Troy and decreased capacity in its Battle Creek and Grand Rapids offices.

“There are millions of refugees who need a safe place,” she said. “We’re mostly seeing refugees from African countries, and the biggest decline are the countries on the travel ban.”

Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, a proponent of immigration as an economic development strategy, said the significant drop in refugee resettlement in Metro Detroit is consistent with Trump’s policies that he announced in September to reduce refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows — at a time when world refugee numbers are higher than any point since World War II.

The time frame for each refugee’s case is different and processing times can be impacted by security and medical checks, interviews and capacity of citizenship services, a Washington, D.C.-based State Department representative told The Detroit News.

“Additional vetting procedures are enabling departments and agencies to more thoroughly review applicants to identify threats to public safety and national security,” the State Department said. “Processing time may be slower as we implement additional security vetting procedures.”

Azmy Bashe, left, his son Sader and wife Liqaa Darder at their Oak Park home. They resettled from Iraq last fall.

Family recounts struggles

Bashe, his wife, Liqaa Darder, 47, and their two sons, Sror, 18, and Sader, 16, are looking forward to Easter in America after struggling for years to obtain refugee status.

Originally from Baghdad, where Bashe and Darder both worked as government clerks, the family moved in 2009 to an ISIS-occupied Christian village called Teleskof, close to Mosul. They were targeted after their son’s accent was noticed by a store clerk while he was buying candy. The family was able to escape to Jordan, where they stayed for three years.

“We struggled in Jordan,” Bashe said. “We weren’t allowed to work, and we could not send our sons to school. ... We lived without income and were constantly facing discrimination as a minority in every community.”

Three years after applying and a six-hour interview, they were accepted as refugees on Sept. 13 and are still adjusting to their lives in Oak Park. The family continues to struggle on welfare since Bashe is disabled. His wife and son have jobs at Tim Hortons.

“No one knows what its like to be a refugee trying to get to America,” Bashe said. “To have nothing to take care of your family and you’re not be able to do anything about it ... you have nothing, not even dignity.”

Rami Hanna, human resource director of Troy-based United Community Family Services, formerly Chaldean American Ladies of Charity, said the Bashes were lucky.

“There are millions of IDPs (internally displaced persons) that are waiting admission for several years,” Hanna said. “And when they get here their struggle continues with lack of integration into the community, basic (English as a second language classes), housing, transportation, employment, and lack of referrals and coordination of services.”

Direct impact

Thompson-Sandy and Tobocman said the loss of refugees will have a detrimental effect on Michigan’s economy.

Over the last decade, refugee resettlement in southeast Michigan brought more than 20,000 new residents to the region whose economic contributions exceed more than $200 million annually, according to a 2016 Global Detroit study, conducted in partnership with the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Thompson-Sandy said the decline in resettlements is both an economic and humanitarian problem.

“In Michigan, we are enjoying a good economy; the downside is that we will struggle to find labor for some jobs normally filled by refugees in the workforce,” she said. “This is an economic, and more importantly, a humanitarian issue.”


Associated Press contributed.

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