In 2016, Pennsylvania resettled more than 4,000 refugees, according to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program.
That was before President Donald Trump instituted a temporary ban on some refugees and proposed reducing the number accepted by the U.S. annually from 110,000 to 50,000.
The U.S. Supreme Court softened the terms of the 120-day ban to allow those with close family ties in this country, but the effect is still fewer refugees. Pennsylvania took in 200 fewer refugees during the first four months of Trump’s administration than the same period in 2016.
With the ground shifting under their feet, resettlement agencies in the area are calculating how to stay afloat — and stay relevant.
Fewer arrivals mean agencies need to figure out how to serve people already here, with less money, according to Margaret O’Sullivan, the executive director of Nationalities Service Center.
“We cut about $700,000 from our budget, for refugee-related services,” she said.
The group eliminated seven jobs, about a third of the staff positions that work with refugees, in the last year.
NSC is one of three resettlement agencies working in the Philadelphia region. At the national level, nine organizations work directly with the State Department to place refugees with the local agencies scattered around the country.
Resettlement organizations receive federal funds to usher refugees through an intensive adjustment period — arranging housing, helping them find work and enroll their children in school, and providing basic cultural translation — all during their first 90 days in the U.S. After that, federal support for rent and other expenses cuts out, but the nonprofits continue to provide services from English lessons to advocacy.
Bethany Christian Services — with sites in Allentown, Lancaster and Philadelphia — is primarily an adoption agency, but began resettling refugees in Pennsylvania last year. When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a partial implementation of Trump’s temporary ban on June 26, Bethany received word that some of the refugees it had been approved to resettle would not be coming to Allentown. Of the 54 scheduled, only nine would still be eligible.
In addition to cutting back staff, Bethany regional director Mark Unger said his organization’s relationships with landlords have been damaged by refugee tenants who have fallen through or been suddenly postponed this year.
“The reality is, the more unstable this work becomes, the less people are inclined to work with you,” he said.
The Syrian civil war and other large-scale conflicts have displaced 65 million people globally, a higher number than any time since World War II, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations. As these numbers swell, France, the U.S. and other wealthy countries are clamping down on new arrivals.
But these restrictive policies, while limiting newcomers, have also triggered a groundswell of support by those eager to help refugees.
“The real issue will be if nobody is coming for four months now, what will we do with all of that energy and desire to help” from local churches and communities, said Rona Buchalter, director of Refugee Programming and Planning with HIAS Pennsylvania.