Future Uncertain for Refugees, Resettlement Agencies after Trump Administration Changes (Holly Meyer, The

Posted 10/28/2019

Meso Kwibe's husband is still in a refugee camp in Tanzania and she has no idea when they will be together again.

While the couple is living in limbo, the Trump administration recently proposed changes to the federal government's refugee admissions program that makes the date of their reunification more uncertain.

A historically low number of refugees - a vetted group of people who fear persecution in their home countries - are expected to be let into the U.S. between now and October 2020. President Donald Trump also issued an executive order allowing state and local governments to opt out of bringing refugees into their communities.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee has yet to make a decision.

How these changes will impact Kwibe remains to be seen, as there are exceptions made for family reunification. But Kwibe hopes Lee will continue to allow refugee resettlement in Tennessee.

"I would like for the governor to allow the refugees to come in," said Kwibe, who spoke to The Tennessean through a translator. "I left my husband in the refugee camp and I would like to get help to get him here."

Refugee resettlement agencies in Tennessee are also waiting to see what the governor decides.

Judy Orr, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, knows that Lee could say no to providing the written consent required under Trump's Sept. 26 executive order.

"That's certainly a possibility," Orr said.

"We do have a Republican governor and we're fully aware of the fact that he will make the final determination, just as he would on any matter where there's partisan points of view."

The Nashville-based organization operates the Tennessee Office for Refugees, which administers the federally-funded refugee resettlement program in the state.

"If we as a state no longer receive that funding, obviously they wouldn't have jobs," Orr said. "Secondly, the people that we then pass down, sub-grantees who receive the money, their operations are in jeopardy as well, including our own refugee and immigration services."

Catholic Charities of Tennessee also has one of the four resettlement agencies in the state that directly serves refugees upon their arrival. They all receive federal funding to help refugees start their new lives in Tennessee.

Even with other private funding streams, fewer arrivals would mean fewer federal dollars funneling through a field of work that has already faced cuts in light of the Trump administration's increased restrictions on the refugee program.

Catholic Charities of Tennessee has cut several refugee-related jobs in recent years and in 2017 World Relief closed its Nashville office.

"The staff, of course, is nervous and concerned because this is work they love, and they don't want to stop doing it because they believe in it," Orr said.

It is difficult to plan for the future right now, Orr said.

Whether there will be less federal funding coming in because of fewer refugees or none at all, Orr anticipates having to puzzle out how to pay for at least some semblance of the programs and services Catholic Charities of Tennessee currently offers.

Staff may have to redirect fundraising dollars from other programs and piece together grant funding, she said.

And even if the governor opts to halt refugee resettlement in the state, refugees who arrive in other states could still move to Tennessee to be with family, Orr said. But the federal funding set aside to help them get on their feet would not follow them, she said.

Drocella Mugorewera, the executive director of Bridge Refugee Services, a resettlement agency working in Knoxville and Chattanooga, is also concerned by the changes to the program.

"Even if the cut is alarming, we want to see our state saying yes to the refugee resettlement," Mugorewera said. "This is the right thing to do."

Refugee resettlement is a contentious political issue

Refugee resettlement has become a contentious political issue as Trump continues to tighten restrictions on immigration, including legal avenues like the refugee program.

While the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama set a historically high annual cap of 110,000 refugees for fiscal year 2017, the Republican Trump administration has swung the other direction, lowering the number year-over-year.

The cap is expected to drop for fiscal year 2020 - this time to 18,000. It was at 30,000 for fiscal year 2019.

Special consideration would be given to people persecuted for their religious beliefs, Iraqis who assisted the U.S. and refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a news release from the U.S. Department of State said.

"The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees," the state department said. "Our refugee ceiling must also take into account our national security and foreign policy interests."

At the state level, Tennessee is currently suing the federal government over refugee resettlement.

The lawsuit, filed at the request of the legislature by attorneys at a Michigan-based law firm, asserts the federal government is forcing states to pay for resettlement costs while violating the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected it, potentially setting the stage for a U.S. Supreme Court battle if the justices take it up.

Trump's executive order said the federal government makes decisions in consultation with state and local authorities about the best communities to send refugees, but some have deemed that consultation insufficient.

"There is a need for closer coordination and a more clearly defined role for State and local governments in the refugee resettlement process. My Administration seeks to enhance these consultations," the executive order states.

It does go on to say refugees can be resettled in communities that do not provide written consent, but the Secretary of State must notify the president and explain the reasons for it.
Gov. Bill Lee has yet to make a decision about how to handle refugee resettlement in Tennessee.

Representatives from the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition decried the changes to the refugee resettlement program. The advocacy group pointed out in a statement released late last month that the U.S. has long been a world leader in refugee resettlement until now.

"The shamefully low admissions number will gut the refugee resettlement program and dismantle the infrastructure to support and welcome refugees across the U.S.," Judith Clerjeune, TIRRC's policy officer, said in the statement. "But for Tennessee, these announcements all but guarantee that politicians will try to end refugee resettlement in our state completely."

Clerjeune called on the governor to act.

"We're counting on Governor Lee to defend our ideals and make sure Tennessee doesn't turn our back on people in need of refuge," she said in the statement.

Lee told reporters last week that he has yet to discuss Trump's executive order with his team.

"It's not really a decision to be made until there is clarity around the request. He issued an executive order, with really no direction on - and there's 90 days in order for those clarifications to come - so until that clarity is made, there's no decision from the state," Lee said.

The executive order gives the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Health and Human Services 90 days to develop a process that determines which states and localities have given consent in writing of their willingness to accept refugees. That deadline falls around Christmas.

'Welcoming the stranger is an important part of our faith mission'

Hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees resettle annually in Tennessee - and they have for years.

"There are so many people in need in all manner of ways and our purpose our mission as Catholic Charities is to help our neighbors and serve them," Orr said.

"We believe that welcoming the stranger is an important part of our faith mission and we'll do that as long as those people need us, but we don't really get involved in the politics of who's coming and why they're coming. It's more of a case of once they're here, we will help them."
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Mugorewera, who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, is grateful for the country's refugee program.

"I'm hoping that Tennessee will keep the culture of welcoming refugees and participating in this life saving program because we have to keep that tradition of welcoming the most vulnerable," Mugorewera said.

She said that it is not just the refugees benefiting from the program. Tennessee companies often call Bridge Refugee Services, seeking to hire from among the slate of refugees arriving in the state.

"It does help America economically and socially, but refugees are also benefiting from safety and security to get hope back and survive and thrive," Mugorewera said.

But it is already taking longer to reunite families with the Trump administration lowering the refugee cap year-over-year, said Kellye Branson, Director of Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

"It's prolonged the time that families have been separated," Branson said. "Ninety-nine percent of our cases that arrived in this past year were joining family members, they were reuniting. There's definitely a lot more refugees out there, approved, ready to travel than there are opportunities under the current caps."

Staff from Catholic Charities of Tennessee's refugee resettlement agency are helping Kwibe and her family make a new home in the Volunteer State.

The vibrant, 25-year-old mother, who wore her hair braided and a pink and teal patterned dress, sat in a chair Thursday morning at the Catholic Charities office in Nashville. She explained how she had spent the majority of her life in a refugee camp in Tanzania after her family had to flee violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It was a difficult life," Kwibe said.

Kwibe and her four family members arrived in Nashville in May. She said life in America is good - it's a peaceful country where people have plenty of food to eat and clothes to wear. She lives in Antioch with her family and has a job working in local schools.

But Kwibe had to say goodbye to her husband earlier this year when she traveled to the U.S. with her parents and two children. Her siblings are still overseas, too.

"It was really sad, and I'm still really sad right now," Kwibe said. "I don't even feel the good life now in America because I miss him."

Kwibe said it is hard to raise her daughters, ages 7 and 1, and fully restart their lives without her husband.

"For me now, I find it difficult to raise my children because I'm alone. I would like to have my husband with me here so he can help me to watch the kids," Kwibe said. "They will have better guidance."

Natalie Allison and Joel Ebert contributed to this report.

Reach Holly Meyer at or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.


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