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Before Biden Can Up Refugee Arrivals, Resettlement Groups Need To Rebuild

President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. [Evan Vucci / AP]
President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021

Many people in Mayele Degaule Ngemba’s Congolese community in Cleveland have been waiting for family who were supposed to join them here — only to have their journeys put on hold. 

The Trump administration’s slowdown in refugee admissions created a bottleneck in the application process. Ngemba described the past few years as a “nightmare.”

“So many of us, we came here as refugees, and still had families that are in the process, who we hoped are supposed to be joining, and couldn’t join due to some of the reckless orders that were made by the administration,” he said.

Mayele Degaule Ngemba

It’s been a problem not just for families who fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also for those affected by the now-lifted Trump ban on travel from some majority-Muslim countries.

In his four years as president, Donald Trump dramatically cut the number of refugees admitted to the United States. In October, the administration set a cap of 15,000 – the lowest limit since the refugee program began in 1980.

President Joe Biden has pledged to reverse that trend. But for that to happen, the U.S. refugee resettlement program will need to be put back together.

“We are hoping to see actually a major shift, hopefully, a major shift with this administration,” Ngemba said.

But that major shift can’t happen immediately. With fewer refugees coming the last four years, resettlement nonprofit groups have cut back across the board.

Brian Upton, director of the Cleveland-based service organization Building Hope in the City, goes so far as to say the refugee system was “dismantled” over the past four years.

“And it cannot go back to running at 60 miles an hour like it was running in 2016,” Upton said. “It’s going to take time for the resettlement system here in Cleveland and across the country to be rebuilt.”

Locally, Catholic Charities cut the number of case workers who are the first point of contact for refugees from five down to one, said Tom Mrosko, who directs the group’s office of migration and refugee services. The number of refugees Catholic Charities resettled in Cleveland fell from 680 in 2016 to less than 100 in 2020, he said.

As Biden increases admissions, placement agencies will need time to catch up, he said.

“I don’t want it to be too slow, but I want it to be appropriate,” Mrosko said. “So that way the staffing is there, that the schools are prepared. But we expect that the numbers are going to increase.”

Resettlement agencies don’t just have to add staff. They need to rejuvenate old relationships with employers and landlords who offered refugees jobs and housing in the past.

“We have to connect with landlords again who might have had really good relationships with us, but because we didn’t fill some of their vacancies with refugees, have gone on to other tenants,” Mrosko said.

As refugees have been waiting, Cleveland has been changing. Affordability is a growing concern for refugee advocates as rents and home prices rise on the city’s near West Side, home to many resettled families.

COVID-19 creates still more complications. The pandemic has necessitated more precautions for the small number of refugees who do come to Cleveland, said Joannah Lynch, associate medical director for refugee health services at Neighborhood Family Practice, a local federally qualified health center. 

“People are quarantining prior to travel, they’re testing prior to travel,” she said.  “It’s small, it’s a trickle, but we’re still seeing people being resettled, even now.”

The health center has had to retool the hours-long health screenings it offers to newly arrived families, replacing some in-person time with telemedicine, Lynch said. Neighborhood Family Practice offers those screenings 30 to 90 days after refugees arrive in the area. But it may have to adapt as more families start making the journey to Northeast Ohio, she said.

“I think we can do it, but we may get to a point where it’s closer to 90 days, and we just need more space, more capacity, more resources at that point,” Lynch said.

The pandemic has given the health center new tasks to manage, too, such as vaccine outreach in already-established refugee communities in the Cleveland area.

There are a lot of hopes riding on these changes.

Glory Brissett resettled in the United States more than a decade ago. She’s been talking with the Cleveland Congolese community about COVID-19 — the pandemic being a challenge she described as common to everyone.

“We cannot run. In a way, it’s a shared calamity,” Brissett said. “We have the same worries, as Africans, Americans, as immigrants.”

Over the next few years, Brissett hopes more people will have the same chance she had to start a new life here after leaving tragedy behind in Congo.

“The people who need a second chance to survive for their lives, they can get that opportunity to be here,” she said. “That’s what I see is going to change, more than four years ago.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.