News & Views

What’s Happening in the Refugee Program?

In recent weeks, continuing shifts in federal policy have kept refugees in the news. We asked Jenny LaMotte, manager of HIAS Pennsylvania’s Refugee Resettlement Program, to talk with us about how these changes, as well as the pandemic, have affected the program.

How have the continuing shifts in federal policy affected HIAS PA’s resettlement program?

Jenny: It’s been really difficult to plan! We know the number of refugees we serve will ramp up dramatically. We just don’t know exactly when or how quickly this increase in refugee arrivals will occur. So far, we are welcoming the same trickle of people we were seeing at the end of the Trump Administration. In May, two families arrived. In April, we had no arrivals, and in March, just one family.

What types of refugees have continued to arrive?

Jenny: A few refugee families have been able to come through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for people who have worked with the US government in Afghanistan or Iraq. We have also worked with several Ukrainian and Russian refugees who entered the US under the Lautenberg Amendment, which protects specific groups fleeing religious persecution. Over the past few years, we have also resettled refugees from a few other countries, including Burma, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But again, the numbers of refugees we have served has remained very low in recent months.

Can you give us an example of a refugee family you have helped in the past year?

Last summer, we welcomed an Afghan family with five children. The father’s life was threatened after he helped the US Armed Forces, so they had to flee their home. They arrived right at the start of the pandemic and spoke little to no English. The family enrolled in online ESL classes right away and also in our digital literacy program so they could pay their bills, shop, and search for jobs online. The parents had to help their children navigate their new situation in three different schools and adjust to learning remotely, certainly something they hadn’t done before. Both father and son are now working in an automotive company, where they received raises after their first performance review! It has been moving to see how the parents have been able to support their children through this incredibly challenging transition while also navigating their own cultural adjustment and job search.

Could you remind us what sets refugees apart from other immigrants to the US?

Jenny: Refugees are granted legal status by the US government because they have been persecuted, or have reasonable fear they will be persecuted, based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The criteria are very specific. The applicants need to have left their own country and must be able to show that they can neither return, nor settle in the country to which they have moved. Once approved—a process that usually takes years—refugees can live in the US and apply for permanent residency.

What about people displaced by natural disasters or war, or people suffering extreme poverty?

Jenny: Those circumstances alone do not qualify someone for the US refugee program, though there is sometimes overlap with qualifying situations.

How is a refugee’s situation different from someone who crosses the southern border and then asks for asylum?

Jenny: Official refugees receive legal status before they enter the country. “Asylum-seekers” apply for legal status after they enter the country. The criteria to grant them asylum are exactly the same.

When does HIAS Pennsylvania enter the picture?

Jenny: We are an official refugee resettlement agency. When refugees are assigned to us, the federal government gives us some financial support to help them with basic needs for 90 days. We rent an apartment and furnish it for them. We pick them up at the airport and provide a hot meal. We help them enroll children in school and get the benefits they are entitled to, such as medical insurance. We talk with them about their goals and connect them to employment programs wherever we can. We provide cultural orientation, ranging from information about US laws and safety to English classes and financial literacy workshops. Before the pandemic, we oriented them to public transportation. It’s a lot to cover in 90 days!

How else has the pandemic impacted your clients?

Jenny: The intense isolation created by the pandemic has been really hard. For instance, last year we welcomed a single mom and her young daughter who had no US ties at all—no friends, no family. I just kept wondering how she would meet people and find a community here when everything was shut down. And she was really worried about being able to work and find childcare. Luckily, our Education team was able to find a preschool for her little girl.

Emerging from the pandemic, what do you see as your program’s greatest challenge?

Jenny: Affordable housing! As soon as we know refugees are coming, we start hunting for an apartment for them, which we also furnish with appliances and other basic necessities. Sometimes we have only a few days’ notice, and affordable apartments are becoming fewer and farther between. Finding them, convincing landlords to take a chance on refugees, all of it is becoming harder as the rental market becomes more competitive.

How do you do such emotionally challenging work?

Jenny: Along with the challenging situations, there are so many wonderful moments, like seeing family members reunite after many years apart. Once travel is scheduled, I get to call a refugee’s relative or friend to notify them. I love making those calls and hearing the emotion and joy on the other end of the phone. And the airport pickup, when someone steps off the plane and you see their first moment and get to be the welcoming face they see when they arrive. Nothing beats that!

What can other people do to help?

Jenny: We need to return to the robust level of volunteer support we had before the pandemic. Volunteers are critical to the home set-ups so we can make each apartment into a welcoming place. We depend on volunteers for a hot meal for a refugee’s first night and for some groceries. In-kind donations help us put more of the financial support we get from the government toward rent in that first 90 days. After that first 90 days, our Philly Neighbors program kicks in. That program pairs a Philadelphia family with a refugee to provide continued support and friendship, because 90 days is not nearly enough time for people to resettle. It’s definitely a team effort!

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