4-24-12, comment for State Dept’s May 1, 2012 hearing on size & scope of fy2013 refugee program
I am a private citizen refugee advocate who has been assisting refugees with resettlement issues for the past three years. My comments are based on my experience helping refugees after they arrive in the United States with two exceptions: (1) It shouldn’t be as hard as it appears to be logistically for refugees to go through the process to enter the U.S. . By that I mean, not that each individual shouldn’t be scrutinized in detail, but that the process should entail the least travel through dangerous areas in their home countries, the fewest return trips to an application center, the most feedback about application status, the fewest repeat requests for information, and the speediest answer about whether refugee status will be granted. (2) The travel loan program should be converted to a travel grant program. There seems to be some sort of philosophy that it is citizen-building to saddle a refugee with debt as his/her first exposure to life in the United States. I disagree, and I believe it is destructive to the refugee’s eventual independence as a productive citizen in this country. I think this is particularly true for refugees – the overwhelming majority of them, I suspect – who come from countries where personal debt, except to family, is unheard of and perhaps even shameful. The fact of the debt – even if they are allowed to delay repayment – dominates their thinking and causes daily stress in their lives. It is regularly and repeatedly emphasized to them that failure to repay the travel loan can jeopardize their ability to get U.S. citizenship because of an adverse credit report – yet they are all too often given no information about how to seek forgiveness of a loan many of them will likely never be able to repay in time because of their personal situations. Furthermore, I think having the resettlement agencies act as collection agents for these loans is a significant conflict of interest for them. Having the supposed refugee advocates and helpers also act as loan collectors seems to be an incompatible role. Furthermore, I seriously doubt if resettlement agency personnel are well-versed in laws regulating collection agencies in their states and likely have not even registered as collection agencies where they do business. I know for a certainty that in some places refugees have been reported to credit reporting entities for nonpayment without the refugees ever being advised of their rights in the matter or being given information about how to seek relief. I also suspect, although I do not know, that refugees have been reported as bad debtors without even being informed of such. I hope you will reconsider and make travel to the U.S. free to refugees, giving them a much better shot at gaining financial independence earlier in their new lives.
My remaining comments concern my experience during the course of my activities as a refugee advocate. My overall sense is that the “official” refugee resettlement network – the national resettlement agencies, their local affiliates, and the Domestic Resettlement Section of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration – is completely unable to organize and administer an effective refugee resettlement program. Obvious evidence of this is the existence of people like me, and the quite large numbers of volunteers and non-official resettlement entities that assist refugees not only where resettlement agencies can’t but also where they can but do not or will not. Resettlement agency failures to meet contracted responsibilities are not isolated incidences but are regular, daily occurrences on a
widespread basis. I believe these failures occur not because of lack of resources, although that is surely true in some cases, but primarily because of a lack of leadership. Leadership in the local affiliates, leadership in the national offices of resettlement agencies, and leadership in the Domestic Resettlement Section. The failure of leadership that talks to each other more than to refugees. Leadership that cares more about what Washington thinks than what refugees think. Leadership that sends refugees to places they have no chance to fit in and, thus, guarantees secondary migration. Leadership that rarely engages refugees in determining their own fates – or even considers them capable of partnering in improving the very systems that serve them. Leadership that rarely insists refugees be treated with concern, consideration, and respect – a small example, in my three years helping, I have encountered exactly two offices serving refugees in which a human actually answered the telephone; my experience instead has been full of voice mail not returned and even voice mail boxes completely full – this by agencies who are serving people who may not even have used a telephone before coming to the U.S. Leadership, such as that at World Relief, who cares more about its employees’ religious qualifications than their actual competence. Leadership that does not put enough of its own cash into a resettlement program but instead phonies up the value of its match (the value of which, I believe, is rarely, if ever, audited by the Domestic Resettlement Section). English language instruction, crucial, of course, for new arrivals, is regularly inadequate and irrelevant to what a new arrival needs. Referrals for mental health services are regularly inadequate or nonexistent. Housing placements are regularly in dangerous neighborhoods and/or too expensive for the refugee to sustain after financial support stops. Too often refugees are completely abandoned after the initial six months placement (and, I might add, after the maximum refugee-generated income has been realized). Too often job placements are made without any concern for the refugee’s abilities and experience – e.g. urban professionals sent to work on dairy farms or to farm crops. Too often the minimum contractually-required services are not adequately provided or not
provided at all. Too often refugees become homeless. Too often there is malfeasance – if not outright fraud – by resettlement agency employees. In my opinion, all of these deficiencies – and more – happen because there are no gate-keepers. There are few people in responsible positions who have the personal and professional competence to install effective programs, who care whether their subcontractors perform well, who care whether their employees serve their clients well, who blame themselves and not their clients when things are not working well, and who every day ask themselves,”What can I do to make my agency better, what isn’t working, what can I improve, what can I change, how can I organize better?” Instead, most of what I’ve seen is simply throwing up of hands in clueless frustration and blaming the clients for lack of effectiveness and program failure. I know this doesn’t have to be this way, It doesn’t have to be systemic. I know this because the few competent, and even outstanding, local resettlement agencies I have also worked with are shining beacons as to what can happen if leaders really care about and intend to have a program that works. In fact, some of the refugees I have talked to in different parts of the United States know of these few wonderful places where refugees get the help they need and wish they were there.
Particularly disappointing is the leadership of the Domestic Resettlement Section who appears to be more apologist for and defender of resettlement agencies and their local affiliates no matter what rather than the overseers and refugee advocates they should be. Complaints go unanswered; or, if answered, are answered with the condescension of a parent who knows best and must be trusted to do the right thing. Investigation may be promised but one never knows whether it happens and what the result is because that would be a violation of confidentiality. All I know is that what I complained about did not appear to change…Program audits are too infrequent and do not appear to include audits of financial responsibility. For example, there have been reports that seem to suggest some funds expenditures were not properly documented yet no comments were made about seeking restitution. As another example, I saw an audit report in which it was stated that seven refugee agency workers shared one full-time equivalent position yet no questions were asked as to how a refugee could successfully receive competent and timely services from seven different people working among them a total of only 40 hours a week. Particularly disappointing is that the Domestic Resettlement Section seems to think all is well and nothing needs to change – at least nothing they care to share with the public that is heavily invested in seeing the resettlement program be successful and a true welcome to new Americans and which is decidedly, except in rare instances, not.
Until much of what I described changes, it seems premature to talk a lot about scope and size although I suppose that’s a start and one has to think about those issues anyway.
Here is a link to a documentary about refugees in Buffalo, N.Y. I think you’ll find their indomitable spirits despite all that has happened to them is most inspiring. I also recommend the press kit that is posted on the web site for an insight as to how resettlement agencies in Buffalo inspired the making of this film.