Budget Cuts, Layoffs And Closures Hit Refugee-Serving Organizations
In a free class offered by a local refugee resettlement organization, recently arrived immigrants can learn the English language while preparing to find a job. The Vocational English as a Second Language, or VESL, program at the International Rescue Committee is a county-funded course that teaches newcomers both language and job readiness skills.
Organizers said a majority of its most recent students are already earning a paycheck, but the program overall is losing money.
Funding for VESL and similar refugee-serving programs is on the decline following President Donald Trump's record-low limits on annual refugee arrivals. Fewer newcomers means fewer government dollars to support them. The administration's recent announcement to slash the figure even further means the trend will continue, causing uncertainty for people overseas but also at organizations assisting newcomers in the U.S.
Donna Duvin is executive director at the San Diego office of the national nonprofit International Rescue Committee, or IRC, one of nine federally funded resettlement agencies in the U.S. Duvin said the local office's VESL funding dropped by 34 percent this year forcing the agency to replace some paid instructors with volunteers and interns.
"As the numbers began to fall, the support that we had from the county that passed through dollars from the federal government, those declined as well," Duvin said.
Duvin said in past years more than three-fourths of the agency's budget relied on government dollars, causing a loss of millions as the office's arrivals dipped by 85.5 percent since 2016. She said the budget changes during that time forced the agency to eliminate 15 positions. But she said the office is filling the funding gap with increased private support and shifted more than half of its staff from the department that assists newcomers to programs that serve thousands of refugees already living in San Diego.
"We’ve got the ability to support refugees and asylees and vulnerable populations beyond that initial period through many of the programs that we have developed over time," Duvin said. "And those are the programs in particular that are really growing and being sustained by private support now."
The IRC is not alone.
A representative for the national resettlement agency Church World Service estimated it lost possibly hundreds of staffers when it closed 10 offices after it was forced to merge operations with other organizations in some U.S. cities. And a spokesman for World Relief said it laid off 140 employees after shutting down five offices across the U.S., raising concerns the limited resources cause significant challenges if resettlement arrivals increased and that it leaves refugees without the help of the agency that previously resettled them.
One of the agency's affiliates that survived closure did so by shifting staff away from resettling refugees altogether. Jose Serrano at World Relief Southern California in Orange County said the organization instead zeroed in on its program that represents immigrants in proceedings with federal agencies or in immigration court.
"The number of refugees entering the United States decreased drastically; therefore we were forced to kind of just focus on immigration and legal services,” Serrano said.
At least one office in Southern California, the East African Community of Orange County, did close its doors, according to March meeting minutes from a state advisory council meeting.
However, it's not only resettlement agencies that are feeling the impact. San Diego Continuing Education President Carlos Turner Cortez said enrollment was down 30 percent this past school year for courses that typically serve refugees and that he expects it to continue.
"We anticipate as we’re tracking numbers in other programs that the numbers are going to have even a greater decline as a result of some of the actions that have been taken at the border regarding asylum seekers over the past summer," Turner Cortez said.
He said the decline, which can affect state funding, is mostly hitting courses in English and basic skills, and he expects citizenship classes to be next.
But he said that enrollment drop is offset by an expansion of job readiness classes that are gaining popularity and likely appealing to established refugees and immigrants.
"We pivot, and we respond to these economic and demographic shifts," Turner Cortez said.
A spokeswoman for San Diego County said so far its refugee employment and support programs are making do with the budget reductions because the population it serves is also slightly smaller, but the agency expects to learn about more cuts before the next federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
However, even bigger changes to the national resettlement system are coming. The State Department said it plans to fund fewer agencies next year.
"We expect to have a resettlement network that is smaller but still national in scope," an agency spokesperson said in an email. "Decisions regarding the location of resettlement affiliates will be based, as they have always been, on prioritizing family reunification and consideration of the local resettlement environment and economy."
The department currently awards annual contracts to nine organizations that represent affiliate offices across the country. Four have locations in San Diego.