No Refuge From Cuts

The cost of dealing with undocumented children at the U.S.-Mexico border threatens money for refugee programs here.

Nefisa Alinur was 8½ months pregnant when she came to Portland from an Ethiopian refugee camp in 2011. Then 19, she left behind her entire family—her husband, parents and eight brothers and sisters—and arrived with few English skills, and without a job or anyone waiting for her.

"You don't have eyes, you don't have ears—you have nothing," Alinur says now of her arrival in the United States. "It was scary."

She found aid at Northeast Portland's Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, which helped her learn English and prepare to look for a job.

Today, Alinur prepares fish at Pacific Seafood in Clackamas, a job that has helped her support her family, including her mother and six siblings, who arrived in Portland a year later.

When her husband arrives, however, he might not get the same help.

In June, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement announced it would have to make deep cuts in the social services it funds for refugee programs to cover the exploding costs of dealing with unaccompanied minors flooding across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The agency says it will shift as much as 48 percent of its budget—about $71 million—from programs such as the ones offered at IRCO to house and process the estimated 63,000 children who have entered the U.S. in the past nine months.

President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address what he called the "urgent humanitarian situation." The cuts to refugee programs could come Oct. 1 if Congress doesn't increase funding.

Office of Refugee Resettlement spokeswoman Lisa Raffonelli declined to provide more details about the cuts, saying the specifics won't be known until Congress returns from its summer recess.

IRCO development manager Jenny Bremner says the cuts will affect services to an estimated 1,100 refugees helped by her organization. "Those are newly arrived refugees with a high need," Bremner says. "There's inadequate funding to cover these needs."

The Oregon Department of Human Services now gets $4.5 million a year from the federal agency, money it distributes as grants to local agencies such as IRCO. DHS refugee program coordinator Anthony Scott tells WW cuts to state funding for refugee resettlement could fall somewhere between $700,000 and $900,000.

IRCO is the state's largest recipient of federal refugee resettlement funding. If the cuts go through, IRCO could lose up to $497,856, or about 4 percent of its annual budget.

IRCO spokeswoman Margaret Malarkey says the cuts would hurt programs ranging from English classes to nutritional assistance for the elderly to job placement.

"Some people have never held a pen, so we're starting at that level and trying to get them to a level where they can be employed,” Malarkey says. 

Sumeya Bwana came to the U.S. in 2010 with her son, Mohamed Mohamed, then 4, escaping the harsh conditions of the Kenyan refugee camp where she lived after fleeing Somalia. She says the camps often ran short on food and offered little education. 

“We didn’t know how to read or write,” Bwana, 27, says. “We needed a job. IRCO brought us someplace we could find a job.” 

Bwana now works as a child care provider after being trained through IRCO's Oregon Refugee Childcare Microenterprise program, which helps refugees start their own child care businesses. Bwana says the idea that others may not receive the same help is troubling.

"I feel bad because if I was helped, I would like other people to be helped too," Bwana says.

Stacie Blake, spokeswoman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an advocacy group, says the U.S. needs to reconsider its policies for processing unaccompanied minors.

"We're not going to be involved in conversations that pit the two groups against each other," Blake says. "We need to take care of the children and address the obvious migration that is happening.”