The number of refugees coming into the United States is at a historical low due to measures taken by the Trump administration.
The Kansas Office for Refugees joined with the International Rescue Committee on Thursday to host a refugee forum in Garden City that allowed residents to ask questions of local refugees and learn more about refugee programs, but while the forum highlighted much of the good in refugee resettlement to the U.S., it also brought to light the problems faced by refugees still trying to make their way here.
Jessica Stephenson, a program specialist who coordinates refugee resettlement in Kansas, led the presentation with an explanation of the programs refugees benefit from through the KOR. Those programs include medical assistance, medical savings, refugee health promotion, refugee social services, refugee school impact, services to older refugees, refugee cash assistance and English language training.
According to the KOR, 580 refugees from a host of different countries have entered Kansas in 2017 so far, versus 1,194 in Nebraska, 4,700 in Texas and 260 in Oklahoma. During fiscal year 2017, the United States received a total of 53,716 refugees, according to the same data.
Of the 580 refugees that settled in Kansas this year, 84, or 14 percent, settled in southwest Kansas.
“That might seem like a little bit of a smaller percentage compared to Wichita or Kansas City,” Stephenson said, “but what you need to understand is that these 84 are those who are resettled directly from overseas to southwest Kansas, so this is only part of the picture, because the Garden City office also serves a huge amount of secondary migrants that were initially resettled in other locations, but then moved to southwest Kansas for employment opportunities.”
This year, Burmese refugees topped the list of refugee arrivals in Kansas at 141, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo came second at 136, and Somali refugees followed with 121. Other refugee nationalities coming into Kansas this year included 55 Sudanese, 32 Eritreans, 26 Bhutanese, 23 Ethiopians, 15 Iraqis, 15 Syrians, eight Iranians, three Afghans, three Salvadorans, one Palestinian and one Nigerian.
The data also showed that arrivals have diminished over the course of the fiscal year. Stephenson noted that the series of travel bans set forth by the Trump administration and the resulting episodes of political fallout map along with the declines in refugee resettlement in the U.S. over the course of the fiscal year.
“We started off the year very strong,” Stephenson said, noting “huge” drops, especially in June, July and August — a month when Kansas reportedly only welcomed five new refugees to the state.
The refugee resettlement ceiling — or the amount of refugees allowed into the United States on an annual basis — is at its lowest point, at 45,000, since the U.S. refugee resettlement program’s inception in 1980. The reason for that all-time low, Stephenson said, is the recent presidential determination of the refugee ceiling by the Trump administration.
“This is not something that we’ve seen before,” Stephenson said. “It is in fact a historical low.”
On Oct. 24, the latest travel ban and suspension of the refugee resettlement program expired, and with the expiration of that ban the president issued a new executive order on the refugee resettlement program. Stephenson noted that the executive order signed on Oct. 24 imposes an additional 90-day ban on refugees from 11 countries, nine of which are Muslim-majority. She added that in 2016 refugees from those 11 countries made up about 44 percent of all refugee arrivals in the U.S.
The new executive order also indefinitely suspends certain family reunification cases, Stephenson said. “I know from the time that I worked in the IRC Garden City office, the number one question that I always got was, ‘When is my family coming? When is my wife coming? When is my husband coming? When is my daughter coming?’ And so it’s really hard to look at people in the eye and say, ‘I don’t know. It’s out of my hands.’”
Stephenson added that the new executive order makes “onerous” changes to the security vetting process. She said admission to the U.S. through the refugee resettlement program is the “most difficult way to get to the United States currently.”
“The process can already take a very long time,” Stephenson said. “We could see a tremendous backlog and slowing-down of the process.”
The data also showed that only 8 percent of refugees receiving cash assistance in Wichita were secondary migrants, versus 54 percent in southwest Kansas. Refugees receive cash assistance as part of a program designed to remove barriers to economic independence, notably through employment services designed to help families gain employment.
“That’s a pretty stark contrast there,” Stephenson said. “That just speaks to the people who are being drawn to the southwest Kansas community because of employment opportunities that are available here and because of your very welcoming community.”
Through such programs, the KOR reports a total of 358 refugee job placements in Kansas, and 69 percent of those were achieved in one year or less while 35 percent were achieved within four months of arrival in the United States.
“This shows that the refugees who are receiving employment services are becoming employed, and that’s really exciting,” Stephenson said.
The same data showed that 95 percent of refugees employed in 2017 had a projected income that would allow for self-sufficiency, to the effect that those refugees would be ineligible for public benefits. Furthermore, the median hourly wage throughout Kansas for refugees and non-refugees in 2016 was $16.57, while the median hourly wage for refugees in southwest Kansas was $15.40, as opposed to $10.14 in Wichita and $11.16 in Kansas City.
Stephenson noted that all three wages are “significantly above” the federal minimum of $7.25. With southwest Kansas’ average refugee wage at more than twice the federal minimum, one can see exactly why the region is so attractive to refugee resettlers.
Three Garden City refugee residents, each of whom departed to the United States from Somalia, also spoke as panelists at the forum. Halima Farah, Fathi Ibrahim and Mursal Naleye, founder of the African Community Center in Garden City, shared stories of their transitions to the States and their hopes for the future.
For Farah, her dream is to become a nurse, and the best part of her adjustment in the States has been meeting the people of Garden City.
“The two years I’m here in USA, I came straight to Garden City, and I have met the best people that I have ever had,” she said. “The dreams that I have for myself and my family is the American Dream.”
She added that she is making her dream happen through a college nursing program. “I hope to become a nurse one day and be proud of this beautiful community of Garden City,” she said.