Catholic Charities of Tennessee executive director Pam Russo delivered the "devastating news" to 13 employees in the agency's Refugee Resettlement office Feb. 23 that they no longer had jobs.
"We had to close tremendous budget gaps and we didn't see another way to do it," Russo said. "We really looked at every possible way of maintaining our current staff level and we could not make it work."
The layoffs, which cut the Refugee Resettlement workforce by 29.5 percent, are a result of the Trump administration's decision to dramatically reduce the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. throughout fiscal year 2017.
President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order temporarily suspended the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program and banned entry of all citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. It also capped the number of refugees that could come to the U.S. during the 2017 fiscal year at 50,000. While portions of the executive order have been held up in a court challenge, the refugee cap remains in effect.
Like other resettlement agencies nationwide, Catholic Charities of Tennessee receives federal funds to cover staff and administrative costs to help refugees resettle in the United States. The amount of funds each agency receives is based on the number of refugees they are resettling. With far fewer refugees expected to be coming to Middle Tennessee, less federal money will flow into Catholic Charities. "We had to eliminate 13 positions due to the lack of anticipated arrivals," Russo said.
Trump's refugee limit is less than half the 110,000 refugee limit former President Barack Obama set for the current fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017. The previous year Obama allowed for entry of 85,000 refugees.
In the fiscal year that ended in September 2016, Catholic Charities of Tennessee resettled 637 refugees out of the 85,000 total entering the U.S. The local Refugee Resettlement office does not have concrete data on how many refugees might arrive during the remainder of the current fiscal year that ends next fall, but using the previous year's numbers and "proportionately reducing our numbers according to the number of arrivals we had last year, compared to overall arrivals ... puts us at 375 new clients" for the whole current fiscal year, according to Kellye Branson, Catholic Charities' Refugee and Immigration Services Department Director.
But, "as of now, we only have seven more clients that are scheduled to travel here in the foreseeable future," Branson told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper.
With Trump's executive order cutting in half the number of expected refugee arrivals to the United States, refugee resettlement offices across the country are facing difficult times. World Relief, the only other resettlement agency in Nashville besides Catholic Charities, recently announced plans to shutter their Nashville office in the next few months and lay off more than 140 staff members nationwide.
"Our staff at each of these locations have served diligently and sacrificially - some of them for many years - and we are deeply saddened to have to make this difficult decision," World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said in a statement.
In February, Catholic Charities USA launched a campaign to raise $8 million to support Refugee Resettlement offices in 80 dioceses nationwide. "We'd like to see if we can raise $8 million to make a dent in (the impact on) some of these jobs so we can retain some of these positions to continue the programming for those already here," Dominican Sister Donna Markham, chief executive officer and president of Catholic Charities USA, told Catholic News Service. "We need to stay focused on our care for those who are frightened and vulnerable."
Catholic Charities of Tennessee has applied for a $5,000 grant from Catholic Charities USA that would assist with refugee client needs. "If additional grants are made available, we'll certainly apply," Russo said.
Twenty-five staff members now remain in the local Refugee Resettlement department, as well as three AmeriCorps members, and one AmeriCorps VISTA member, and two immigration staff members. The Refugee Services department also will retain some part-time staffers for their after-school programs.
Those laid off from the Refugee Resettlement office include supervisors and newer employees and some former refugees. Most of the positions that Catholic Charities was forced to eliminate were in the areas of reception and placement, those who make arrangements for new refugees and assist them when they first arrive in the country.
"Now our primary focus will shift to refugees who are here already in the areas of employment and helping them get to self-sufficiency," Russo said.
Russo said Catholic Charities would be "doing as much as we can to support" the employees who lost their jobs, by offering job search assistance, some severance pay and coverage of health insurance premiums for a limited time.
"This is a difficult time of transition," Russo said. "We have a hard time ahead of us, but the work goes on."
Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.