Thursday, June 26, 2014

Please ask Congress and the president not to kill the US refugee program

On July 5 the US refugee resettlement program will essentially be defunded for the rest of this fiscal year.

If you watch the news at all, you know that the southern US border is being flooded with young people crossing illegally and coming from mostly Central America. The majority are teenagers, but there are also children and babies among those making the crossing. There was a story on NPR about it just this morning, but it didn’t mention the part about funding (You should listen to this story anyway to get a better understanding of the situation and what's driving it).

US law is very clear that when Unaccompanied Alien Minors come into the country, they must be vetted and processed and provided with whatever services they need while in custody (medical, mental health care, clothing, food, school, etc.). Most of these kids are sent by relatives or sent for by family already in the US. In fact, 85 percent are reunited with family here and will likely wait years until they have to talk to an immigration judge. Those who don't have family here are put into the foster care system and cared for indefinitely. Until they are released into family custody or foster care, they must be properly cared for.

On June 20 (ironically, World Refugee Day), The Office Of Refugee Resettlement stated its intention to reprogram the current FFY 2014 budget to shift all existing funds away from refugee resettlement to instead address the flood of Unaccompanied Alien Minors coming across the southern US border. As stated earlier, ORR, by law, must tend to the needs of these minors who are entering the country illegally; however, ORR has not been given adequate financial resources to carry out that duty for up to 70,000 children and teens while also supporting the resettlement of up to 70,000 refugees.

This ORR reprogramming/budget issue will impact real people who waited patiently in often harrowing conditions and came here legally. On the other hand, it's a fact and a law: Unaccompanied Alien Minors need to be processed. There has been no adequate funding put in place to do that. If Congress and other stakeholders in Washington intervene before July 5, though, it needn't be an either/or situation. An emergency appropriation of $200 million dollars will help the children at the border without doing so at the expense of the refugee resettlement program.

In addition, Congress or the appropriations committee needs to separate into two distinct items the currently single-line item in the ORR budget that combines processing of Unaccompanied Alien Minors and the resettlement of refugees.

Here’s the thing: Nobody wants to touch that. Calling for an emergency appropriation and splitting the Unaccompanied Alien Minors funding into a separate, transparent line item could look like tacit support for illegal immigration to some people. Some in Congress will also gladly hold back if it will make the current immigration situation look like a failure on the part of the Obama administration, and others in Washington may not want to stop the July 5 re-appropriation if it appears that doing so is anti-immigration, which could potentially alienate many voters and constituents.

Many refugees wait many years--10, 15, 20--before they are vetted and cleared and allowed to legally enter the US. If the US takes the funding from the refugee program and uses it for other purposes, we also renege on promises we made to people who helped our troops and government representatives in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. If we can't follow through on the promises of protection and safe haven we made to the people who risked their lives when they provided intelligence, logistical support, translation, and more, we are seen as being untrustworthy and that makes US interests more vulnerable worldwide.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement is truly between a rock and a hard place. They must tend to the needs of the minors crossing the border, but they have only the money earmarked for refugees to work with. This shouldn't be an either/or situation. Congress could make an emergency appropriation. Plenty of people would probably stand behind that option—if they only knew it was an issue at all.

If the refugee budget reprogramming goes through, the services to refugees, many of whom are also children, will be gutted. Refugees who are already here will have limited access to care and support.

Members of Congress will be heading home for the July 4 holiday within days. If you plan to contact them, do not wait. This situation is urgent. If you would like to contact the White House, you can do that, too. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants committee has a contact form on its website, along with suggested language for a letter if you prefer written correspondence.

Please let President Obama and Congress know that by granting the emergency funding to ORR, it takes away the problem of sacrificing the needs of one vulnerable population to serve another.

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