Affected communities should have a say

Sep. 13, 2011, Written by Don Barnett

Refugee resettlement in America has traditionally been the responsibility of sponsors — families who housed the refugees, charitable organizations which provided assistance and employers with jobs.

Until the federal Refugee Act of 1980, refugees were explicitly barred from accessing public welfare. Sponsors had to provide at least a year of lodging and support including medical coverage.

This is not the system we have today.

Today, refugee resettlement is almost entirely the responsibility of the taxpayer — both state and federal; the sponsors have become federal contractors. One of the main tasks of the contractors — misleadingly called Voluntary Agencies or Volags — is to link refugees with social services programs. The contractor/sponsor responsibility ends after just three months in most cases. Needless to say, with such a short period of engagement, assimilation is not on the agenda, even when assimilation is the desire of the refugees themselves.

Thirty days after arrival, refugees are eligible for all forms of public assistance on the same basis as a U.S. citizen. This has resulted in staggering welfare dependency rates, despite laughable statements about refugee “self-sufficiency” found in official Volag reports.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R.-Ind., commissioned a report in 2010 entitled “Abandoned Upon Arrival: Implications for Refugees and Local Communities Burdened by a U.S. Resettlement System That Is Not Working.”

The report concludes that the federal government too often brings refugees to U.S. communities with inadequate resources and little planning who “place demands, sometimes significant, on local schools, police, hospitals and social services. Local governments are often burdened with the weight of addressing the unique assistance refugees require, yet they rarely have an official role in influencing how many refugees are resettled by local voluntary agencies and often are not even informed in advance that new residents will be arriving.”

The report recommends modifications to “Enhance formal consultations with state and local leaders, improve accountability and promote community engagement which improves chances of assimilation.”

Likewise, the National Governors Association (NGA) regularly pleads for more state involvement “in the congressional consultation process through which new refugee admissions levels are determined to ensure that program funding is provided to support the level of refugee admissions.”

On its website, the NGA speaks of “a major federal policy change that shifts fiscal responsibility for meeting the basic needs of refugees and entrants from the federal government to states and localities.”

Further, “governors continue to be concerned about the lack of adequate consultation on the part of the voluntary agencies (Volags) and their local affiliates in the initial placement of refugees and on the part of the federal government in the equitable distribution of refugees.

States have continually urged the federal government to establish a mechanism to ensure appropriate coordination and consultation. However, significant progress has not been made. …”

Tennessee is the first state in the nation to pass a bill which will address this issue. The Refugee Absorption Capacity Act (RACA) provides common-sense guidelines which promote consultation between Volags and the U.S. State Department on one hand and local communities on the other.

The law also provides a mechanism for localities to request a slowdown or a moratorium in resettlement based on the capacity limits of social service providers, public schools, public housing, public health services and so on. The law is very modest in that a community may merely make a request, not assert a right, to refuse resettlement. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a process where affected communities are granted a say in the resettlement program.

Don Barnett is an information technology professional and free-lance writer in Brentwood.