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MN Refugees' Advocates Urge Patience in Changing Resettlement Policies

Advocates for Minnesota immigrants say in addition to a case backlog, the COVID-19 response could delay efforts to restoring refugee admissions under President-elect Joe Biden. (Adobe Stock)
Advocates for Minnesota immigrants say in addition to a case backlog, the COVID-19 response could delay efforts to restoring refugee admissions under President-elect Joe Biden. (Adobe Stock)
November 18, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to bring back America's welcoming approach toward immigrants and refugees. One Minnesota group says that's restored hope in getting more people resettled, but cautions that patience is needed.

The cap on refugee admissions declined every year during Donald Trump's presidency, to a record low of 15,000 for 2021. Biden has said he wants to boost the number to 125,000.

Micaela Schuneman, refugee services director for the International Institute of Minnesota said that would even be above the historical average prior to Trump's term, but she said any changes wouldn't happen overnight.

"Because of a lot of the administrative changes that happened, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is going to have to hire more staff," she said. "They're gonna have to get back to processing cases at the level that they were processed before."

She said it could take up to a couple years to see higher numbers of refugees after the changes are reversed. A number of resettlement agencies that work with the federal government scaled back their operations when the Trump administration downsized the program. In the last fiscal year, the Institute brought 109 new residents from other countries to Minnesota, down from more than 500 in the final year of the Obama administration.

While the executive branch gets to set the refugee cap, Congress has to authorize funding for that level. Schuneman said that's why it's important to get the backing of lawmakers as well. She noted that, historically, there's been bipartisan support on Capitol Hill -- but the last four years have been difficult for the people they're trying to help.

"We saw quite a few family members, of course, who were very distraught, very sad, when we'd have to call them and tell them a case had been delayed," she said.

Schuneman also said clients were a little more reluctant to speak openly about their own case or a family member's, given some of the heated rhetoric in recent years. Outside of restoring the resettlement infrastructure, those involved estimate a backlog of 120,000 refugees who are waiting in the wings.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN