WASHINGTON — With less than five months to go, the Obama administration remains far behind its target of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by Sept. 30, but officials are expecting to draw closer to that goal in the coming months with a spike in resettlements in Michigan and across the U.S.
Officials at refugee-assistance agencies in Michigan and elsewhere say the pace of resettlements has lagged expectations, though Obama administration officials made clear that security concerns raised last November by Gov. Rick Snyder and others after the Paris attacks have not slowed their efforts.
Instead, officials say it took months for the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security to adequately staff interview centers at camps in the Middle East to handle what is no more than a portion of the estimated 4.8 million Syrians displaced by the conflict there and in Iraq.
“The United States remains committed to the president’s plan (to resettle 10,000 Syrians by Sept. 30),” State Department spokeswoman Julia Mason confirmed for the Free Press last week. “We expect Syrian refugee arrivals to the U.S. to increase steadily throughout the fiscal year.”
If a surge is coming, Michigan is likely to be involved: Since the fiscal year began last October, 211 Syrians have been resettled in the state, more than anywhere else in the country — for a total of 386 resettlements between Jan. 1, 2015, and April 30 of this year. And that’s no surprise, considering southeastern Michigan has the largest Arab-American community in the U.S. with cultural and societal ties to the Middle East and deep experience with refugee resettlements.
But the numbers of those coming could dwarf what has been seen to date. According to the State Department, a total of 1,736 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S. since October, meaning it would take on average more than 1,650 resettlements a month through Sept. 30 to hit the 10,000 mark.
If Michigan — which has resettled about 12% of the Syrians accepted into the U.S. since the refugee crisis began last year — continues its trend, the state could welcome hundreds more in the near future, even as questions about immigration lurk as part of a fractious general election debate.
Late last year, Donald Trump — now the presumptive Republican nominee — called for a halt to all Muslims entering the U.S. in the wake of the terrorist attacks by radical Muslims in Paris. Michigan, meanwhile, is expected to be a key state in Trump’s strategy to appeal to white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, reiterated her own concerns about the administration increasing the number of Syrian refugees at a time when the Islamic State — also called ISIS and ISIL — has threatened attacks against Western nations.
“They (the administration) basically told us not to worry about it because they use biometric and biographical data. However, the reality is, there is no database on Syria, making it impossible to adequately screen these refugees,” Miller told the Free Press. “It concerns me that this administration is underestimating the capabilities of ISIS.”
“Refugees are the most thoroughly screened category of traveler to the United States,” Mason, from the State Department, said, noting that while capacity has been increased to handle refugees from camps in Jordan, all applicants are subject to the “same stringent security requirements that apply to all applicants for U.S. refugee resettlement.”
Last November, Snyder was one of the first to raise concerns about the vetting of refugees after the Paris attacks, putting on hold his efforts up until then to increase the number of refugees Michigan was taking in each year — though he never specifically called for a halt in resettlements.
Snyder’s office told the Free Press last week that he has not and will not object to the State Department’s plans and that he “welcomes immigrants from all nations to come to Michigan,” though he would still like a deeper review of security vetting practices by the Obama administration.
Meanwhile several states — Michigan is not among them — have withdrawn from the federal refugee resettlement program, though that would only potentially stop state agencies from working with the program, not halt actual resettlements in their states. Others are still considering legislation that could hurt resettlement efforts, though their legality could be in question.
“We are aware of pending legislation and actions by state governments, and we remain committed to admitting 85,000 refugees from around the world, including 10,000 Syrian refugees, this fiscal year,” Mason said. “Refugees enrich their new communities economically and culturally; many have started new businesses; others serve in the U.S. military. … As the president has said, ‘slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values.’ ”
A drop in the bucket
Relatively speaking, the number of Syrian refugees to be settled in Michigan — even after a surge — would be minuscule, considering the state’s population of about 10 million.
And while there have been some notable resettlements — Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee who lost much of his family and resettled in Troy won the attention of President Barack Obama after his story was featured on a website — dozens more go unnoticed. In the last five years, more than 11,000 Iraqis have been resettled in Michigan — second only to California — with little notice.
The U.S. commitment to resettle Syrian refugees is also a small one compared with some other nations, like Germany, which has said it would resettle about 800,000 refugees — though the U.S. number could grow in the years to come.
Still, resettlement agencies in Michigan are bracing for the uptick in refugees, not only from Syria but elsewhere, with only about one-quarter of their total approved number of potential refugees — 4,761 — having been processed so far this year.
It’s not unusual, said Jeralda Hattar, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, to have resettlements spike as the end of the fiscal year nears. But she said it puts pressure on her organization and others that rely on government reimbursements and can’t typically hire enough help in advance to deal with the load they know is coming.
“It fluctuates so much it makes it difficult to anticipate; it’s nothing new,” she said. “This year we’re worried it will be larger than usual, but it’s May already and we haven’t seen it.”
Hattar said out of the 256 refugees her organization has resettled, nearly 100 have been Syrians. She expects to see another 100 or so out of the organization’s 928 total allocation this year — though it could be more than that. She and others in her office have been working with people in the Syrian community, as well as educators, local officials and state agencies, to prepare.
But she could use more help — sponsors, volunteers, potential landlords, people to help refugees go to health screening appointments or go grocery shopping. Even finding someone to help transport and load and unload furniture for new residents would be a great help.
“We’ve got a family of 10 Syrians coming May 23rd,” she said. “We (still) have to work on finding housing, still don’t have it — a family of 10.” She said some landlords are resistant to provide help despite the fact that refugees receive cash assistance and other help, including aid finding work.
“I will say our Michigan communities have been wonderful and very welcoming in general,” she said.
Ready to help
At Samaritas — encompassing what had been Lutheran Social Services’ refugee resettlement services in southeast Michigan — spokeswoman Lynn Golodner said the organization is ready “to help as many refugees … as the federal government deems appropriate for us to welcome to Michigan.”
“It is a question of helping humanity more than simply singling out Syrians. All people seeking refuge in America are welcome, and we resettle those sent to us by the federal agencies,” she said. Samaritas has settled 56 Syrians in Michigan so far this fiscal year — compared with 69 for all of last year — though more are likely to come.
Suehaila Amen is treasurer of Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, a group that for decades has been a support organization for refugees resettling in southeast Michigan, especially in and around Dearborn.
While she said she believes “negative rhetoric” toward refugees will have little practical effect on resettlements, she worries that anything that encourages a rejection of immigrant communities could put additional stress on people “who are already feeling the effects of war and terror.”
“I think people have forgotten what this nation was founded on,” she said. “These refugees who are fleeing a war-torn country, who are we to deny them access to opportunity when we have not denied it to others over the centuries?”
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