Between 2013 and 2017, the number of refugees entering Virginia crept up until it topped 4,200, more than double the number who entered the state just four years earlier.
But in 2018, the number plummeted to its lowest in six years, leaving some resettlement agencies scrambling and causing at least one to close its doors.
In the 2018 fiscal year, only 1,749 refugees were settled in Virginia. The vast majority came from Afghanistan, while the second and third most-represented countries were the Democratic Republic of Congo and El Salvador.
While a large number of refugees entering the country and Virginia would pose its own obvious difficulties for resettlement agencies in terms of finding resources, too few presents its own challenges, said Seyoum Berhe, Virginia’s state refugee coordinator.
The reduction in Virginia follows a national trend. Even as the number of displaced people worldwide has surged to 68.5 million, including 25.4 million refugees, the U.S. has been accepting a fraction of the number of refugees it has in years past. In fiscal year 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration set the national cap on refugees entering the country to 45,000, then slashed it again to 30,000 this fiscal year. There was a 110,000 refugee cap in place when Trump took office, The Washington Post reported.
“It’s mostly, of course, concerning for the families who need to come, who had been cleared to come, some of whom would be reunited with family members and friends already here, many of whom have been waiting for many, many months, and sometimes many years, and sometimes a decade or two, and now will not be coming at least for the foreseeable future,” said John Baumann, Virginia director of Church World Services, one of the nine resettlement agencies nationwide.
For the agencies themselves, six of which operate in Virginia, the largest impact is on personnel. Once you let staff go or close an entire location, you lose people with valuable resettlement knowledge, Berhe said.
“People who are capable linguistically and culturally are now leaving to work with private agencies because there is no security,” he told the state Board of Social Services during a meeting at the beginning of the month. “That’s the biggest challenge.”
“All nine resettlement agencies, including CWS, have had to shrink their networks through layoffs and office closings,” Baumann said in a letter on the agency’s website. “And all are struggling to hold the line as we await a return to more historically normal, and more compassionate, policies and funding levels.”
Not every resettlement agency has instituted layoffs, but they have scaled back in other ways. The International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville location has trimmed its staff through attrition, said Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the agency’s Richmond and Charlottesville locations.
Because they haven’t been resettling as many refugees, IRC has been focusing its efforts on improving and expanding the services it offers to those who are already here, Kuhr said.
That means helping individuals get back on track with their careers or starting up new youth and health programs. It’s a goal they’ve had for a long time, Kuhr said, but they’re now able to devote the time and energy that would otherwise go to helping new refugees.
Fluctuations in the number of refugees entering the U.S. and Virginia is not necessarily new for these agencies. Kuhr pointed out that often agencies have to deal with huge differences on a month-to-month basis, with 31 refugees arriving in one month and only a handful the next, for example.
But such a drastic reduction particularly fuels concerns over the loss of experienced staff, Baumann and Berhe said, especially if the country ultimately returns to the levels it has supported in the past.
Resettlement agencies are government-regulated operations. They can’t be opened overnight.
“I would say you’re talking many months and maybe even years,” Baumann said. “You’re not talking days and weeks.”
And the reductions are hard on those refugees who do make it to the U.S. Baumann said that families are sometimes split up into more than one case, and when that happens one case can be chosen for resettlement and then the remainder of the family usually expects to be approved, too. But that’s not always the case.
“Then you can have folks who are separated from their family members for many years,” he said, “and some folks have a legitimate worry that they may not really have an opportunity to see them again for a very long time.”