In the minority: Pennsylvania’s governor, cities welcome refugees

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     A Syrian refugee, who agreed to be photographed on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation against family living in Syria, poses for a portrait at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in Whitehall, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A Syrian refugee, who agreed to be photographed on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation against family living in Syria, poses for a portrait at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in Whitehall, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    The federal refugee resettlement program is concentrated in a handful of states — most with governors who say they don’t want Syrians as residents. 

    The federal refugee resettlement program is concentrated in a handful of states — most with governors who say they don’t want newly-arrived Syrians as residents.

    Keystone Crossroads talked about it with Melanie Nezer, Vice-President,  Policy & Advocacy for HIAS — one of the nation’s nine resettlement agencies, and chair of Refugee Council USA.

    Emily Previti: The 90-day resettlement program is federally funded. But the support programs that are critical to success of federal ones are state-funded, or at least they are in Pennsylvania. So is there discussion now about what to do if governors cut funding to some of these support programs?

    Melanie Nezer: Yes, there’s a lot of discussion about that right now. This is very concerning because we do have a very established process for resettling refugees that’s worked for decades, so this would be a disruption. I do want to say that the funding that the states provide is reimbursed by the federal government. I don’t know if it’s a 1:1 match, but a significant portion of benefits states pay out to support refugees is reimbursed by the federal government). But that said, if a governor says we’re not going to be providing benefits for refugees, or a particular group of refugees, it is going to be a problem for the resettlement network.

    We’ve already seen in Indiana, a Syrian family actually was turned away. Not my organization, but another different resettlement network had to resettle them in Connecticut.

    So this is not a way to run a refugee program. It has to be a federal program.

    EP: Are you working on legislation or in the beginning of that process, to see if there’s a way to cut out a state government if them yanking funding from some of the support programs was going to compromise their survival?

    MN: I think it’s too soon to really go down that road. In Indiana, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit. I don’t know there’s going to be a groundswell of governors who follow that. Once governors start talking to mayors and local communities, and once governors learn more about it, I’m hopeful this will not be a domino effect.

    EP: It’s more than just a financial thing, it’s trying to assess how welcoming an area might be. But one might presume that communities at the local level are welcoming — otherwise, there wouldn’t be resettlement offices there.

    MN: There’s a lot of consultation among resettlement agencies, local governments, service providers, schools, hospitals — these communities are ready to welcome refugees. So, by governors making these proclamations, it’s turned into a political issue. But this is really a community-based program that’s a partnership of faith and humanitarian organizations, and local governments and citizens who have spent countless hours and donated countless blankets and beds and other furniture, and filled refregerators, and met refugees at airport. This is stuff that’s been going on every day in our communities for, for decades. It’s going to take more than a quick decision by a governor to derail that.

    EP: You mentioned this particular resettlement program has been in place since the ’80s. Can you think of another time since then when there hasn’t been equivalent but similar — and I’ll use your phrase again — the exploitation of any underlying xenophobia that might exist in some of these communities?

    MN: I personally have not seen it. I’ve been working in refugee and immigration issues since before 9/11, and I didn’t see it then happening like now — and so fast. Maybe it’s because of social media, and less talking to each other or more talking at each other … I don’t recall any time this has happened so quickly and with such little regard to facts.

    The Paris attacks happened over the weekend, and we were all horrified by that and shaken by it. And by Monday, 30 governors, or 31 governors, had come out against the resettlement program, which has nothing to do with what happened in Europe. It’s totally unrelated. You can see there wasn’t much deliberation about this.

    Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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