What the cut to the federal refugee cap means for Colorado

The Trump administration announced earlier this week that it is again cutting the number of refugees allowed in the country

A refugee from Iraq and her interpreter speak of her being separated from her husband and son at the African Community Center of Denver on Sept. 19, 2018 (Photo by Rachel Lorenz)

She sat under the fluorescent lights of the resettlement agency office, at a long wooden table with an employee interpreting beside her. The crimson-lined headscarf she wore was bright; her demeanor was far from it. The years of uncertainty and fear she was recalling were betrayed by her somber face and clasped hands.

The woman, who for safety reasons asked to remain anonymous, recalled being forced to flee her home in Iraq in 2004 as war descended on her. She registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria with her entire family. In 2010, when war again threatened them in Syria, she says, the family escaped back to Iraq.

From Iraq, she says, they fled to Turkey and she was separated from her husband, the family’s provider, who was forced to seek work in Dubai. 2 years ago, the UNHCR assisted her departure for resettlement and she was relocated to Colorado. The grandmother hasn’t seen her husband or son in five years. And, now, she says, she doesn’t know how much longer she may have to wait.

The Trump administration announced earlier this week that it is again cutting the number of refugees allowed in the country, placing the limit at 30,000 for 2019, according to the State Department. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the cost as a reason for the cut and the increasing number of asylum seekers at the southern border.

Through her interpreter, the woman says her husband and daughter are stuck in Turkey and her son in Iraq. “The separation is very hard,” she said.

Those working with refugees decried the new, lower cap.

“We don’t think it is justified in any way, and we think it is really not reflective of U.S. values and will leave tens of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable without an opportunity to start a new life or to rejoin family members who may have already been resettled here,” said Paula Schriefer, president and CEO of The Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. The Center assists refugees with language classes, interpretive needs and career training.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the average cap since 1980 has been just under 95,000. In its final year, the Obama administration set the cap at 110,000, according to the Department of State. But when Trump took office in Jan. 2017, he slowed the flow of refugees reducing the actual number of intakes to just shy of 54,000.

With the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2017, the Trump administration further reduced the cap to 45,000 and introduced more stringent screening processes. The actual number of admittances was far lower at just under 20,000 as of Aug. 31, according to data from the State Department.  The department’s budget for Refugee Admissions program fell from $583.9 million in 2016 to $390 million for 2019.

Kit Taintor, state refugee coordinator for the Colorado Refugee Services Program, said that in 2018 Colorado was prepared to and expected to resettle 1,377 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders — a program for Afghans and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, mostly as translators. As of Sept. 19, less than half that amount, 602, had arrived, she said.The majority of those are now in metro Denver, Taintor said.

The lower caps have had a direct impact on the three refugee resettlement agencies in Colorado.  Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, International Rescue Committee and the African Community Center of Denver all have contracts with the state Refugee Services Program, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. Each is a nonprofit helping refugees find housing, jobs, with language skills and whatever else is needed to become self-sufficient.

In 2016, the African Community Center helped nearly 650 refugees. In 2018, Jennifer Gueddiche, interim director of the African Community Center, said that number will top out at 150. Because agencies are funded per refugee, Gueddiche said staff will be cut and forced to take on new responsibilities, like interpretation. She said the U.S. should and can let in 110,000 refugees per year.

“We have a network of agencies across the U.S. that are here and have open arms waiting to welcome people and help them integrate into our community,” Gueddiche said.

The African Community Center helped to resettle the Iraqi woman and four of her children in Colorado two years ago. Her husband and daughter, reunited in Turkey, still haven’t been given clearance to come to the U.S. The backlog of refugees in Turkey makes getting help from the U.N. nearly impossible, she said.

Job and school prospects are bleak for those who can’t speak Turkish, she added, and her husband and daughter are barely getting by on the money her husband saved.

“It’s just like they live in a prison,” she said. “If there are issues they will deport them.”

She said that when the family first got to Turkey the woman’s son, Zaid, couldn’t find a job. So he went back to Iraq with his family hoping to find something to get by. Now he can’t get out. The territory between the UNHRC office and her son is too dangerous to even attempt to cross and the Iraqi government won’t help. Her son has no job, she said, little money and has skipped many meals.

As she described her occasional conversations with her son, she began to sob and buried her face in her hands.

The woman said she appreciates the resources that Colorado resettlement agencies have given her, but she just wants to be self sufficient with her family.

“My dream is to have my husband and other kids join me,” she said. “I just want to have a safe life, a good life, with my kids.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jared Polis, in a statement to The Colorado Independent, pointed out his past sponsorship of bipartisan immigration bills, adding “The President’s recent haphazard action on refugees comes on top of his extreme and destructive immigration agenda, and demonstrates the need for Congress to pass bipartisan immigration reform. America must continue to be the beacon of freedom, safe harbor and humanity.“

Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton did not respond for comment. The offices of Reps. Ken Buck and Mike Coffman, each of whom has large number of refugees living or working in their districts, also did not respond.

Updated Sept. 22 with Rep. Jared Polis’ comments.