The nation's nine refugee resettlement agencies say another cut by federal officials will further strain the already-stretched program and could threaten the existence of their local offices that help refugees coming to the country and those already here adapt to life in central Ohio.
This is important in Columbus because it is home to two of the local offices serving one of the largest refugee populations in the country — tens of thousands who legally settled in this city and had to learn a new language and culture.
The State Department announced last month that it is paring back the number of national agencies authorized to resettle refugees through local affiliates— including the two Columbus groups — in fiscal year 2019. It is doing so as President Donald Trump has been cutting the number of refugees allowed into the United States. Currently, there are about 300 resettlement offices spread across 49 states that are associated with the national agencies.
"Working together we can help refugees fit into the community much better than the government can on its own," said Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization at World Relief, which closed its Columbus office, and four others across the country, in July because of earlier federal cuts.
The local affiliates of the national agencies mobilize local resources and work with local communities to help refugees find housing, jobs and everything else they need make a new life in their new city, said Erol Kekic, executive director of the immigrant and refugee program at Church World Service. Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus is the group's affiliate in Columbus.
Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has made several moves to reduce refugee admissions. First he issued executive orders stopping the resettlement program, and, more recently, he's made policy changes.
Within days of his new presidency, he cut the 2017 refugee cap to 50,000 from the 110,000 ceiling set by Obama. In September 2017, he announced a 45,000 cap for 2018, the lowest number since the U.S. refugee resettlement program was established in 1980.
In December, the State Department announced that local resettlement offices with less than 100 refugees to resettle this fiscal year must close.
Trump has pointed to security concerns for some of the changes.
"We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas," Trump said shortly after being sworn in. "We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people."
Advocates say refugees don't choose the country where they'll be resettled and must undergo rigorous security procedures, including background checks, in-person interviews and biometric screenings.
Trump and his administration also have said that refugees drain government resources. But advocates and research have shown that they are an economic benefit and are more likely to start businesses than Americans born here.
Refugee resettlement organizations have already reduced their budgets in response to the cut in refugee arrivals, resulting in layoffs, closing of local offices, and the need for many of the groups to stage fundraising campaigns to help make up for lost federal funding, the groups said.
What will happen next is unclear, advocates said, since there is no ceiling set for next fiscal year's refugee admissions and no indication of how many total refugees will be resettled this year. Resettlement agencies are estimating that 20,000 refugees of the original 45,000 cap will be allowed into the United States since only about 10,000 have been resettled so far and it's halfway through the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
"It's not a switch you can turn off and on," Soerens said of the refugee arrivals.
Most of the agencies are diversifying their services in hopes of staying open no matter how many new refugees come, said leaders of the local and national organizations.
In the wake of lagging arrivals, CRIS has reallocated some of its staff and resources to its employment, legal, mentoring and senior programs or services, said Angie Plummer, the group's executive director. But resettlement makes up one third of its programming and ending it would threaten the whole organization, she said.
"It's important we continue to exist so we can keep that structure there," she said. "If it's all burned down and gone, that's really heard to recreate."
In the face of uncertainty, US Together, another Columbus resettlement agency, relies heavily on its interpreter services and has created a social enterprise to increase revenue, said Nadia Kasvin, co-founder and director of the group.
Kasvin said the agency has been operating at a deficit for several months and she doesn't think that will change. Despite these challenges, it is still committed to its core work: helping welcome new refugees to the country, and she hopes to do it for a long into the future.
"Refugees were coming to this country from the very beginning and we strongly believe this country will continue to welcome refugees from all over the world," she said. "We just don't give up that easily."