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Wisconsin refugee arrivals are starting to pick up as refugee restrictions lifted

Sarah VolpenheinMilwaukee Journal Sentinel Published July 7, 2021

Wisconsin refugee arrivals are starting to pick up as Biden lifts refugee restrictions, COVID-19 pandemic wanes

Wisconsin refugee agencies expect to welcome more refugees into the state in the coming months and years, many likely from Myanmar, as policies on refugee admissions are lifted.

It could take years, the agencies’ leaders say, to return to the levels of refugee admissions seen in 2016 in Wisconsin and the rest of the country.

“You have to be aware that the systems that were in place to normally assist refugees are not there right now. They’re just gearing up again,” said Alexander Durtka Jr., president and CEO of the International Institute of Wisconsin, one of the four agencies that resettles refugees in Wisconsin.

Refugee arrivals plummeted to historic lows over the past four years as the number of refugees allowed into the country was curtailed, resources were shifted away from refugee case processing, and new vetting measures put in place slowed processing times for refugees, according to a report by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Many refugee resettlement programs were forced to reduce staffing or even close. That included Catholic Charities in Milwaukee, which ended its refugee resettlement program in 2018.

From federal fiscal year 2016 to 2018, refugee arrivals fell from 1,691 in Wisconsin and 84,994 nationwide to 404 in the state and 22,491 nationwide, according to numbers from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.

The refugee cap was recently raised to 62,500 for the fiscal year ending in September.

Refugee arrivals were halted for part of last year and have been slowed because of the pandemic. But as the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, refugee arrivals are starting to pick up.

Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, one of the resettlement agencies, resettled 14 refugees in the first seven months of the fiscal year, said Mary Flynn, program manager. In June alone, the agency had resettled at least 18, she said. Flynn expected the agency would resettle a little over 100 people by the end of September.

Jewish Social Services of Madison, another resettlement agency, did not resettle any refugees in the first six months of this fiscal year, said Dawn Berney, executive director. But since April, they have received 21 refugees and could resettle as many as 70 by the end of September, Berney said Friday.

Even without factoring in the pandemic, it will take time for refugee resettlement groups — as well as federal agencies that process refugee applications — to rebuild capacity to receive refugees in the numbers they did before.

"It will take a few years. This is not going to happen overnight," said Bojana Zoric Martinez, Wisconsin state refugee coordinator.

Because funding for resettlement agencies is linked to the number of refugees served, a smaller number of refugees entering the state does not mean more resources per individual or more time for resettlement officials to work with refugees.

Refugee resettlement agencies help refugees with securing housing and employment, enrolling children in school, arranging doctors' appointments, applying for Social Security cards, learning English and things like how to ride the bus and more.

Zoric Martinez said it was difficult for agencies to maintain some programming and staffing. She said agencies would sometimes share services with each other's clients, such as health literacy workshops on how to use medication properly.

"Leveraging each other’s resources and staffing and funding was how we got over it," she said.

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