SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Reopening offices and hiring more staff, agencies across the U.S. are preparing to welcome more refugees. Many were forced to close or scale back operations after years of record-low admissions set by the Trump Administration.
“We literally pick them up at the airport," said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of San Diego.
Resettlement agencies like JFS welcome refugees to their new homes in cities across the U.S.
“Everything from furniture to dishes to food in the fridge, we start the family off. So, we’re beginning to plan for all of that," said Hopkins.
In anticipation of more refugee arrivals, they’re renting apartments, recruiting volunteers, and hiring specialized staff.
“In past years, San Diego alone could resettle 5,000 individuals. So, when you think about 15,000 throughout the entire country, it’s a rather small number," says Hopkins, referring to the 15,000 refugee cap set by President Trump for 2021.
Each year in the United States, the president consults Congress and sets an annual cap for refugee admissions.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says before the Trump Administration, the average annual ceiling exceeded 95,000. The organization says presidents of both parties have set even higher ceilings: President Ronald Reagan’s highest ceiling was 140,000, and President Barack Obama set a refugee admissions target of 110,000 for 2017.
After Trump took office, he lowered Obama's 110,000 refugee cap to 50,000 and would continue reducing admission in the years ahead:
- 2018 : 45,000 cap
- 2019: 30,000 cap
- 2020: 18,000 cap
- 2021: 15,000 cap
Despite promising to raise admissions, President Biden announcedin April he wouldn’t be doing it this year. But after weeks of backlash, he reversed the decision, raising the cap to 62,500 refugees, quadrupling Trump’s refugee cap.
But resettling 62,500 this fiscal year is unlikely.
“The whole process was really dismantled," said Hopkins. "So, the Biden Administration, in order to get the numbers back up, also has to reinvest in the infrastructure and get government personnel to all those locations to be able to do this work.”
The UN Refugee Agency says of the 80 million people who’ve been forced from their homes worldwide, 26 million are identified as refugees.
Unlike asylum-seekers, refugees are vetted and screened overseas in a lengthy process. Hopkins says they've already fled their country of origin either because of persecution, war, or violence. Asylum-seekers leave their country seeking protection from persecution and human rights violations, but they haven't yet been legally recognized as a refugee and must wait to receive a decision on their asylum claim.
“As a person who was a first-year in a university, that was extremely difficult, having car bombs and IEDs and terrorist groups operating," said Eder Raheemah, an Iraqi refugee resettled to the U.S. five years ago.
Born in Mosul, Iraq, Raheemah says he was familiar with the sounds of war. But by the time he got to college, the violence intensified.
“What’s next? Even if you get a Ph.D. in physics, what would you do with it? That’s the worst part, the absence of hope," said Raheemah.
His family waited five years before they were accepted to the U.S. as refugees.
“That was one of the real happy moments for me and my family," said Raheemah. “Having a job where you can feed your family and be secure, that’s all."
Raheemah says he was lucky to know English already when he came to the U.S. but he says his family was blessed to have so many people help them get acclimated to their new home.
"It's a completely different country, culture, language. Different lifestyle, different everything. But it's still, it's security," said Raheemah.
Hopkins says they may only get a couple of day's notice that a refugee is coming to San Diego.
"We need to do a lot of this work, whether they’re coming or not. Because we can’t wait until the moment they come," said Hopkins.
But he says they'll be ready to serve more refugees when they arrive.
“Today is exactly five years I’ve been in the United States. And after those five years, I’ve been blessed like 200 times than what I ever thought of,” said Raheemah.
An engineer and new homeowner, he hopes more refugees will soon get the same chance.
“I can’t ask to be rich because I think I am rich, because I’m safe.”