In February, President Biden announced he would expand the number of refugees admitted to the United States to 125,000 annually, with an immediate increase beginning soon. The 15,000-person cap set by the Trump administration was the lowest since the Refugee Act became law in 1980 with overwhelming bipartisan support.
International Institute of New England’s Chief Program Officer, Emma Tobin, answers some questions about refugee resettlement and what the increased refugee cap means for IINE.
Once IINE is notified of a refugee arrival what are the immediate actions case managers take?
Emma: There are two incredibly important things that need to happen right away. The first thing that needs to happen is finding housing for the arriving refugee(s). The search for an apartment begins from the first moment we are assigned a case. The other immediate action is for refugees who are rejoining with family or friends in the United States. IINE staff will start by calling family and friends of the arriving refugees to let them know their family member is coming to the U.S. Often, these family members and friends help play a role in finding housing and getting the home ready for the incoming person or family.
What can a refugee expect once they arrive in the U.S.?
Emma: Refugees receive cultural orientation overseas, but every refugee has a different level of understanding of what resettlement looks like. Some people may have more information from friends and families who have previously been resettled, but everyone’s experience will be unique to them.
On our side, IINE staff meets all arriving refugees at the airport in either Manchester or Boston. Our staff are there to welcome them immediately, and we always have someone at the airport who speaks their language so they are welcomed to the U.S. in their own language. From the airport, IINE staff brings them to the home we secured and furnished for them and that first evening we provide them with a culturally appropriate warm meal. After getting them settled in their new home, our staff leave them to rest for the evening and then we come back the next day for a home visit. This is the start of an intensive 90-day case management period.
What do those first 90 days in the U.S. look like for a refugee?
Emma: The first 90 days for a refugee are pretty packed. IINE has a schedule that is strictly stipulated by the federal government and it must be completed in those first 90 days. IINE case workers conduct an assessment and enroll refugees in programs that they’re eligible for and are appropriate for them. These programs include ESOL courses, employment services and, if there are kids, getting them enrolled in school. Our case workers also help refugees get their social security numbers and their employment authorization documentation. Refugees also need to get connected to a PCP and health insurance and must complete a two-part refugee health assessment during this time.
Newly arrived refugees also receive cultural orientation, which provides an overview of all aspects of life in their new community. The cultural orientation includes walking tours of their new community, showing them how to use public transit, and if they have children we show them where their child’s school is where the school bus stop is. We also go over topics like what the role of the police is, what an employer expects of you in the workplace, an introduction to how the government works in the United States, how to be a good tenant, and even how to use the different appliances in their new home. In light of the pandemic we’ve also included topics on public health, and in the last year, a lot of thought has gone into how we talk about race and racism in their cultural orientation.
Cultural Orientation is intense, we cover quite a lot, and at the end people take an assessment to determine how much information they’ve absorbed. Those 90 days are really about saying “this is your new community and this is how it works.”
How is IINE preparing for the increase to the refugee cap?
Emma: Internally, we are doing everything in our power to increase staffing and providing refresher training for existing staff on refugee resettlement. Some of our staff have never been part of a full-scale resettlement program so we’re making sure all new and current staff are receiving training. Externally, we’re reigniting our landlord network, our employer networks, and our volunteer networks. We’re talking to everyone about the fact that more refugees are going to arrive and we’re trying to get people in the community excited.
What’s the general sense at IINE around raising the refugee cap and the return of a full-scale resettlement program?
Emma: I think people are so excited. For a lot of our staff the refugee program taps into their real passion. When we get a travel notification for a newly arriving refugee, people celebrate. Now it’s more exciting than ever because every travel notification is a reminder that this is going to start happening again and again.
There’s nothing else like a it; welcoming people to their new home for the first time, supporting them to get every piece of their life set up, teaching them how to use stove, how to pay their bills – and then imagine doing that for hundreds of people simultaneously! It’s a very hopeful time from us in a lot of ways.
What’s something you wish people knew about refugee resettlement that they might not know or wouldn’t expect?
Emma: I want people to know the amount of public funding a refugee receives for those first 90 days. It’s incredibly low. When refugees arrive in the U.S. they receive $1,025 to live on for 90 days and it’s meant to cover their rent as well. The takeaway for me is that refugees are not a drain on the system, they’re getting a small amount of money to start their lives. People take this small amount of money and leverage it to create a self-sustaining life here, they get jobs and they figure out how to survive in the U.S. If a lot of Americans tried to live on $1,025 for three months, they would be pretty shocked.
Another thing people don’t realize is that refugees come from all over the world. Our clients are from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. To serve these clients, our staff speak so many languages and have such deep and broad cultural understanding.