The Columbus Dispatch
Pause in resettling refugees troubles Columbus advocates
When President Joe Biden took office in January, Aden Hassan was hopeful that a new leader would mean his mother would finally be able to join him in his North Side home.
The former refugee from Somalia has been separated from his mother since January 2017, when Hassan, now 30, boarded a flight to Columbus from a Kenyan refugee camp and was told that his mother and her husband would be a week or two behind him.
Soon after, President Donald Trump was inaugurated and instituted a ban on refugees traveling to the United States from numerous Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
His mother never came.
Years later, he is still waiting. His mother is in poor health and has a broken leg, and her husband has since died, Hassan said.
Biden’s election held a lot of hope for refugee families — including Hassan’s — who had been separated since before Trump took office, but the current president has not ramped up refugee resettlement as quickly as many expected.
Then, at the end of October, just as some agencies were finally beginning to gear up to resettle more refugees than they have in years, Biden put a pause on the resettlement of many of those refugees.
A State Department spokesperson said the temporary pause, which began Oct. 29, is to allow refugee resettlement agencies to focus on assisting Afghan evacuees. But it’s a pause that some say isn’t necessary, and one which presents a speedbump to resettlement agencies as they rebuild their capacity following Trump’s years in office.
Angie Plummer, executive director of local refugee resettlement agency Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS), which resettled Hassan, said there’s no reason why Afghans and refugees from other countries can’t be helped simultaneously.
“When we were asked do we want to pause (refugee) arrivals, I said no because it’s apples and oranges,” Plummer said. “We don’t think that it’s necessary. It’s not a competition for resources to have these folks come.”
Plummer said the agency has staff to help find housing and other services for Afghan evacuees, and those resources are different from what the agency has been building back to assist other refugees. While Afghan evacuees mostly just need housing, many other refugee cases coming in are joining family and will live with them, she said.
During October, 401 refugees were resettled in the United States, according to State Department data. Only one refugee was resettled in October 2020, but in October 2016, when President Barack Obama was in office and the refugee admissions cap was higher, 9,945 refugees were resettled.
CRIS was told it could resettle 959 refugees during this fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2022, but now everything is uncertain, and Plummer said she isn’t sure how many will end up arriving.
Neither is Nadia Kasvin, co-founder and executive director of another local refugee resettlement agency, US Together, which was set to resettle 600 refugees this fiscal year.
“I’m really concerned that we did put a pause to refugee travel,” Kasvin said. “There are a lot of people out there that have been waiting for the last five years to join their families, and we have a lot of people in our communities that have been waiting for many years for their spouses, for their parents, for their children.
“And every single day of delay it’s another day that families won’t be able to reunite, and it’s really sad and it’s really concerning,” she said. “And we hope that the refugee travel will resume as soon as possible without further delay.”
Not all refugee cases are paused under the recent announcement, as the State Department said it is prioritizing urgent cases, those with processing steps that will expire, family reunification cases and refugees who have travel arrangements made before the pause is over on Jan. 11.
Experts said the pause likely won’t affect many arrivals, as it is over the holiday season when there are often pauses on refugee travel and agency closures for the holidays.
Plummer said she is happy that it’s not an across-the-board pause for refugees, but said there still will be some refugees affected, such as those who waited years to arrive during the Trump administration and are once again bumped further into the future.
She said she is glad those who have processing steps expiring are getting attention, but is worried about what a pause could mean for the already slowly rebuilding program moving forward.
“I fear there’s only so much bandwidth and that it’s shifted to focusing on Afghans, and we can’t take our eyes off these other crises that are happening,” Plummer said. “We want to serve the Afghans well, but we also feel committed to serving those people whose cases we started and who got the shaft under Trump.”
In light of the pause, refugee resettlement advocates are lamenting the fact that Biden did not prioritize rebuilding the refugee resettlement program as soon as he was inaugurated in January. Plummer said she is concerned because the program’s capacity is still being rebuilt after Trump’s administration decimated its infrastructure.
“Any stopping and starting creates pains,” Plummer said. “I worry about that. Even if their intentions are to try to exempt out certain groups, we should be trying to ramp it back up and help this machinery work again.”
Plummer and Hassan said they are both hoping the Biden administration’s actions soon match his campaign promises.
“I haven’t felt the commitment and the attention I was expecting,” Plummer said. “I really thought some wrongs would be righted and they haven’t been, and it feels like they’ve been shuffled down the road.”
The fact that the administration hasn’t prioritized restoring resettlement capacity sooner makes Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at the national refugee resettlement agency Church World Service (CWS), furious.
“The problem is you never want to undermine or harm one refugee population in the name of another,” Owen said.
Delays in travel can have a cascading effect for refugees that can last months to years, Owen said.
“All resettlement locations are both prepared to welcome resettlement cases and evacuees,” she said. “The State Department must take steps to ensure this booking pause does not further affect the backlog of refugees awaiting resettlement.”
For Hassan, things remain hard without his mother. He said he wishes he could ask the president to do things the way he said he would.
“I will tell him: ‘You promised people are coming. We were very happy — and we’re still happy that you’re the president of this country — but we were expecting to do things the way you stated,’” Hassan said.
“We’re given the opportunity to come to this country to start a new life and, as a refugee, we really appreciate that, but I feel like I have a right to live with my mom like other people do in the country.”
“I haven’t felt the commitment and the attention I was expecting. I really thought some wrongs would be righted and they haven’t been, and it feels like they’ve been shuffled down the road.”
Angie Plummer, executive director at Community Refugee and Immigration Services