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Congress allocates more funding to Office of Refugee Resettlement

Despite budget increases, experts fear for the future of refugee services.

Congress has largely increased funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to $1.489 billion from last year’s $1.12 billion, said Jen Smyers, associate director for immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service—a group that works with refugees in Durham and across the country. ORR estimated it would need $1.6 billion to serve all the populations in its care this year—a half billion increase from last year’s budget—and is looking for ways to meet the more than $100 million shortfall, Smyers added.

“We never thought [the funding] was going to get cut from last year’s level,” Smyers said. “Our fear was that they would not get anywhere near [ORR's] needs. Due to some really great advocacy and last minute phone calls, we were able to get the number to $1.489 billion, which is a substantial increase, but there still is a gap between that number and the number ORR projected.”

Projected costs for this fiscal year increased by nearly half a billion dollars to cover an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied alien children coming to the United States from Mexico and Central America this year, Smyers said. This is an increase of approximately 10,000 unaccompanied children from the number of children in the 2012 fiscal year.

Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of ethics at the Kenan Institute and associate research professor in sociology, was critical of the calculations used to reach the increase in ORR's budget requirements. She said that taking care of 10,000 extra children should not require a 30 percent increase in funds.

“The U.S. resettles 60,000 refugees a year, and the 60,000 refugees cost $1.12 billion [last year]," Shanahan said. "To say that a half billion dollars is what it takes to increase that by 10,000, the math is extremely wrong."

With regard to the $100 million shortfall, Shanahan said this is only between a 6 and 7 percent total shortfall, which is not “extraordinary.”

“Even if refugees had to bear the entire cost of this, it’s not clear that [the burden] would be that dramatic," Shanahan said.

It is unclear how the shortfall will affect refugees. Smyers said Congress appropriates an agency to their funds, and the agency decides how those funds are used. Currently, the ORR provides refugees with eight months of assistance. If, however, the shortfall cannot be remedied, the ORR may reduce the duration of assistance they are able to provide. ORR will likely prioritize unaccompanied children over longer-term refugee assistance.

Smyers noted that it is difficult for the ORR to receive adequate funding from Congress, especially in the current budget climate.

“Everyone wants to cut funding and specifically people don’t want to increase funding for something that benefits people who are not U.S. citizens,” she said.

Junior Dechen Lama, president of Duke Refugee Aid who has worked with Church World Service in Durham, noted that she was pleased but surprised that Congress increased funds for ORR.

"Refugees don't have any voting power and many people are often unaware that there are refugees resettling in their community," Lama said. "Duke students don't even realize that many cab drivers are resettled refugees. So, similarly, it's easy for Congress to ignore or forget about them."

Smyers added that the ORR is a low priority in the Department of Health and Human Services bureaucracy.

"But I think there are lots of members of Congress who care about vulnerable populations and care about children who are fleeing violence," she said. "In the last two years, we have seen both Republicans and Democrats come to the table to see what can be done on the ORR budget."


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