Our bureau considers Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service a very close and valuable partner. Because of the part you play as leaders of Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services (LIRS) of America, I want to be sure you know how much we appreciate our colleagues, the men and women of LIRS. LIRS is an exceptional partner.
Most of what I want to share with you today concerns the refugee resettlement program, but I thought I would first give you a quick snapshot of what is happening overseas in places of concern to us.
Overseas, we work primarily through multilateral organizations, such as the UN refugee agency, or UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). We are a major funder of these organizations, and we work very closely with them to ensure the taxpayer’s dollars are well spent, so that refugees get shelter, food, medical care and the basics of life – from blankets to plastic wash basins.
In the Middle East, we continue to be the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance in response to the crisis in Syria.
In Asia, ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma has led Burmese to seek refuge in neighboring countries, crossing the borders into Bangladesh and Thailand, or putting to sea for a dangerous voyage to other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
In Africa, there are now nearly 570,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees; 40 percent of whom have been displaced in the past year and a half. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, innocent civilians flee unspeakable abuse. And then there are almost a million Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa.
The United States plays a leadership role in responding to these challenges, and if you have questions about what we are doing on any or all of them, please ask me questions at the end of these remarks.
Here in this country, the PRM bureau runs a major program to resettle refugees in America.
UNHCR counts over 42 million people of concern worldwide, most of whom are internally displaced and 15 million of whom are refugees. And of the refugees, only a fraction of 1 percent is resettled annually.
I’m proud to say that the US welcomes more than all other resettlement countries combined. Since 1975, more than 3 million have found a new home in the United States. Last year, we received more than 58,000 refugees from 66 countries. This year we plan on welcoming 70,000.
Refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership carried out in towns and cities across America. It takes many organizations working together. This includes the UN Refugee Agency, the US government, including Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and my bureau at the State Department, and nine resettlement agencies, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and hundreds of affiliate agencies across the United States.
The people who come here as refugees have usually led very hard lives. Some have lived in stultifying camps for decades, struggling to find meaning to their lives and trying to raise their children when they can’t work and they can’t leave the camp. Some have fled horrors that are difficult for us to imagine. Iraqi refugees have seen relatives murdered or threatened. Burmese refugees have fled war in their homelands.
The amazing thing about the program is how well it works. Year after year we see phenomenal rates of success: parents who get jobs and begin to work their way up the economic ladder, children who become fluent in English and thrive in American schools, grandparents who have sacrificed everything but have the peace of mind that comes with knowing their family is safe.
Over the past few years, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has been shaken by several daunting challenges. These challenges relate to the US economy, our security, and our receptivity to welcoming the foreign-born to our shores.
ECONOMIC: The economic downturn of 2008 led to high unemployment rates in the United States. We found that able-bodied adult refugees, who are expected to secure employment soon after arriving in the US, were having trouble finding jobs. We also found that the amount of money provided to affiliates to help refugees get settled and re-start their lives was woefully out of date. That’s why three years ago PRM doubled the amount of money allotted to affiliates. We have increased the per capita every year since then.
SECURITY: Two years ago, two refugees from Iraq were arrested in Kentucky as they plotted terrorist activities here in the US. Soon after the arrival of these individuals, security procedures were enhanced that initially kept many refugees out of the program. We experienced a rapid decrease in the numbers of refugees arriving. We knew the vast majority of the refugees were not terrorists, but we also knew we had to take even greater care in deciding who could enter the United States. Working closely with the White House staff, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the intelligence community, we refined the procedures used. Today we believe we have the right balance between protecting the American people and continuing our tradition of offering a sanctuary for innocent people fleeing violence and persecution. Getting this balance right is one reason that we will be able to bring 70,000 refugees to the US this year.
LOCAL TENSIONS: I am sorry to report to you that in certain places around the country, the welcome mat for refugees is in danger of being rolled up and carted off. Community and political challenges have arisen in places like Tennessee where legislation was passed requiring quarterly reports on the program to the state legislature, Georgia where the governor attempted to stop federal funding from entering the state, and Manchester, New Hampshire where the mayor tried to stop refugees from being placed in his town.
In response, we are doing more domestic outreach in Georgia, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Tennessee, among other locations, to preserve and enhance support for resettlement.
We have also asked our partners both nationally and locally, like LIRS and its affiliates, to broaden and deepen their own engagement with local officials and leaders.
BUDGET: In Washington, D.C., budget challenges seem always to be on the horizon. I know you are aware of this because the budget battles in Washington have been a major news story this year.
We have seen our budget rise and fall like a roller coaster, and we didn’t know until last month what our budget for the year would be – even though we were already half way through the government’s fiscal year!
We do not want to pass along the budget craziness to resettlement agencies that do so much on small budgets. We know you can’t fire your entire staff one month and then re-hire them a few months later when there is more clarity on funding levels and the number of refugees we can afford to bring to the US. For this reason PRM has taken steps to guarantee and provide a minimum amount of funding to L.I.R.S. and the other voluntary agencies that you all can rely on. By guaranteeing a certain level of funding – what we call “floor funding” – we hope to ensure that you can manage the program well and with a sense of stability.
Now, having weathered these challenges to the resettlement program, let me give you the good news.
Congress did provide us with the funding we need for this year.
This year we are experiencing robust and evenly spaced arrivals. We have successfully brought in 25% of the refugees we expect for the year in the first quarter of our fiscal year, and another approximately 25% arrived this past quarter. Hallelujah! This is the way our program is supposed to work.
Finally, we believe in reuniting separated members of refugee families. In order to make this happen, we re-launched the “priority three” or P-3 family reunion program on October 15, 2012. There is a new requirement for applicants to provide DNA evidence of parent-child relationships and this will ensure that we are reuniting people who are indeed relatives.
In conclusion, let me note that welcoming refugees is a core part of who we are as a nation. It reflects our national values. After all, America was founded as a place of refuge.
The work of communities and networks of volunteers helps to turn the promise of America --as a land that welcomes refugees -- into a reality. The success of our resettlement program depends on you. Thank you for the part you play in letting refugees turn their stories of tragedy into ones of triumph.