An Idaho refugee center is safe amid Trump administration’s refugee cuts

It was mostly quiet Wednesday in the waiting room except for hushed chatter in foreign languages to family back home. At the corner of the room were stacks of toys and a purple sheet set for a little girl’s bed still in its original plastic case. Intake has slowed at the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Center, but the future of the center looks secure for now.

This is the third year since the CSI Refugee Center, which has been in operation since 1980, saw a drop in the number of refugees it takes in. Last year the center took in 121 people, an increase from 2018 when it took in 78, but still down considerably from 2017 when it took in 322.

A new executive order issued by President Trump last month that cuts the number of refugees the U.S. will accept from 30,000 to 18,000 this fiscal year threatens the center’s funding. The center receives federal money based on the number of people it takes in. With the new order its approved intake, which is now 140, may drop. Congress will meet on Tuesday to decide what the final nationwide cap on refugees will be.

“We are hoping Congress will advocate for us,” Zeze Rwasama, director of the Refugee Center, said.

Rwasama reported to the CSI Board of Trustees in January that the center’s annual budget dropped to $781,000 for the fiscal year, a significant drop from its $1.3 million in funding in 2016. Continued drops have affected refugee centers throughout the state. World Relief Boise, once one of three centers in the Treasure Valley, decided to close in 2017 due to a lack of funding.

At least 50 of the nation’s 350 refugee resettlement affiliates have closed since 2016, according to a May 2019 report by the Migration Policy Institute. The CSI Refugee Center is the only one in the Magic Valley. The remaining two in the state are in the Treasure Valley. The center in Twin Falls has already secured enough funding for the next fiscal year to continue operations, Rwasama said.

“Last year we had to reduce this number of workers,” Rwasama said. “Now we are not looking at cutting anything for at least the first quarter of the fiscal year.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little’s office said that it is reviewing the president’s order and deciding “the best path forward for Idaho citizens.”

The number of refugees almost doubled between 2012 and 2018 and continues to grow. The current number of refugees worldwide is about 20 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The cuts on refugees have also slowed family reunification.

The CSI Refugee Center recently received more refugees from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and fewer from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Burma. These trends have to do with how the federal government processes cases, not necessarily because there are fewer refugees from those areas.

With this new order, the U.S. will designate allowances for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It is the first time the U.S. will make allowances for refugees from Latin America.

It is too early to tell how many refugees the center will receive, but with closures of resettlement centers in surrounding states, it’s possible that it could receive more than in previous years. Rwasama said that bringing in new refugees helps U.S. natives by keeping the current economy strong.

“If we would like (the economy) to continue to grow, we need to bring in more able bodies,” Rwasama said. “We need to plug in the people who come in to support that growth.”

The U.S. has typically taken in more refugees than any other nation, but under the Trump Administration, there have been historic cuts to annual refugee ceilings. The administration issued a refugee ban during Trump’s first year in office due to concerns about the vetting process.

The CSI Refugee Center experienced backlash from an anti-refugee movement four years ago that petitioned to shut down the center. That movement also expressed concerns about terrorists slipping through the refugee vetting process.

As a result, the number of volunteers swelled from about 25 to more than 200, and it has received more donations than it has storage for. The center also began educating the community about its work to maintain a peaceful relationship with the Magic Valley, Rwasama said.

“We have another responsibility to make sure we are serving locals, not just refugees,” Rwasama said. “There is no way we can be successful without educating the community about refugees, what their contributions are and making sure their questions are answered.”

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