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AZ Refugee Program “Taps the Brakes” on Resettlements

October 15, 2009

PHOENIX - Rising unemployment has one of the state's major refugee programs "tapping the brakes" after nearly tripling the number of immigrants resettled in Arizona during the past three years. Craig Thoresen, director of refugee and immigration services for Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, says Arizona has been a good fit for refugees, but it is getting tougher for those families to find jobs and become self-sufficient.

"Three or four years ago, we basically had employers calling us every day looking for workers. We have a cheap and abundant source of housing, and we have a welcoming community for refugees."

Thoresen says most of the refugees coming to Arizona these days are from three countries: Iraq, Burma and Bhutan. Some 12 million refugees in the world have fled their homelands because of persecution. The United States admits well under one percent of them each year. They typically wait anywhere from two to 25 years to be accepted.

After meeting refugees at the airport, Thoresen says his agency's first priority is providing food, clothing, housing, health care and some basic orientation to life in Arizona.

"Some arrivals have lived in urban, fairly modern places, and some haven't. Some have never seen running water. Some have not seen flush toilets, appliances, locks on the doors. For some, that's very standard; for some, it's brand new."

After orientation, Thoresen says the focus turns to teaching English and job skills. He says most refugees are able to land entry-level jobs within three to six months.

Refugees are thoroughly screened by Homeland Security before they are ever admitted to the United States, Thoresen says. They are first given a legal document called an I-94, which serves as a passport.

"After one year, they can apply for their 'green card' (permanent residency). And five years after arrival, they can apply for U.S. citizenship."

Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest expects to resettle about 1,000 refugees in the Phoenix and Tucson areas this year.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ