Refugees Welcome in NJ, Despite Administration’s Move to Stop Them

"It's not going to affect refugee resettlement in the state of New Jersey," said Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Camden, which assisted 91 refugees in the last fiscal year.

Last week, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer urged the governor to change his mind, saying Christie's “divisive and inflammatory rhetoric against refugees has been a stark contrast to New Jersey’s long tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and violence overseas."

Hickey, whose organization works in the six South Jersey counties, confirmed that.

There are wonderful stories, particularly in the school systems, of the welcomes these children receive," he said. "Generally, it restores one's faith in humankind. It's amazing."

Last month, Elizabeth Connolly, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, sent a brief letter to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services giving 120 days notice of its withdrawal as administrator of the federal program for New Jersey.

This was not a complete surprise, given Christie told President Barack Obama last November that New Jersey would not accept any Syrian refugees. His letter followed a statement that Christie, then a presidential candidate, made in which he said that, if elected, he would bar all Syrian refugees, including orphaned children, from the United States. He made the comments shortly after the terrorist attacks that killed 130 in Paris. The terrorist group known as ISIS or ISIL claimed responsibility and some of the attackers reportedly had fought in Syria and returned to Europe among the flow of refugees. At the time, Ofer said no governor, Christie included, has the right to refuse to accept refugees.

Despite Christie's statements, Hickey said he believes the United States' refugee-screening progress is rigorous.

"We are confident in the security of the vetting process," he said. "It takes an enormous amount of time once a person is considered a refugee. There are multiple interviews. It could be three years before they are admitted."

"ORR’s services are provided only after an individual successfully completes stringent security screenings, is granted refugee status by DHS, and is brought to the U.S. for resettlement by the State Department," said Victoria Palmer, a spokeswoman for the US DHS.

The state's decision only means that New Jersey will not officially assist in refugee resettlement efforts, or get funding for DHS's Refugee Resettlement program. New Jersey is currently among the majority of states that oversee eresettlement programs. In the 17 states that do not participate , resettlement is overseen through public-private partnerships.

Should New Jersey follow through and end the DHS's oversight program, the organizations that currently assist refugees will continue to do so. But any federal funds that DHS gets to administer the program would instead go to whatever agency the U.S. ORR designates as the new overseer. Three agencies primarily do the work now: Catholic Charities, the International Rescue Committee, and Church World Service. Hickey said whichever agency picks up the functions currently performed by the state will receive a fee for administering the program and also would wind up setting up a separate office to handle those administrative functions.

Palmer said New Jersey received grants totaling $2.4 million to administer the refugee resettlement program in the 2015 fiscal year and the ORR will redistribute the funds for the current fiscal year so that "a portion of the remainder of New Jersey’s grant award will be redirected to the replacement designee agency to continue providing services through the end of the fiscal year."

A DHS spokeswoman did not answer a question about potential ramifications of the withdrawal of funds received by the state.

According to Christie's proposed 2017 state budget, New Jersey was anticipating $4.3 million in the current fiscal year (from the program) and a comparable amount in the next.

Currently, DHS is responsible for submitting to the ORR a plan outlining resettlement activities and services for the coming year for approval and to receiving grant funding. If New Jersey pulls out of the program, the replacement agency will be responsible for those tasks, with a goal of helping refugees get jobs and become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, with cash and medical assistance and social services provided for a limited time while the refugees get established.

The U.S. ORR website shows that New Jersey got about $2.7 million in fiscal year 2014 for cash and medical assistance and social services programs for refugees. The state got another $450,000 in discretionary grants for programs targeting Cubans and Haitians, preventive health programs, and school impacts. Additionally, two organizations got matching grants: the International Rescue Committee's Elizabeth office got $367,000, while the Diocese of Camden received $79,000 for its efforts.

Catholic Charities of Camden's fiscal year 2015 report shows that the organization resettled 91 refugees from nine countries, including Syria, and served a total of 350 refugees in all of its services. The greatest number came from Myanmar and Iraq.

Last month, Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of U.S. Programs for the International Rescue Committee, criticized the administration's decision and said the organization will continue to work to help refugees.

"Refugees have been resettled in the state for many years and have been a vital part of its growth and diversity," she said. "The governor’s claim that security processes remain inadequate is patently false. Refugees are subject to a range of rigorous and thorough security checks, including the use of biometrics and name checks against a robust set of databases. The vetting system has been methodically structured to both safeguard the security of the U.S. and provide protection to those who need it most, and to whom we have a moral obligation to protect. “

“As Gov. Christie turns his back on the world's most vulnerable, the IRC will step up and ensure that refugees receive the services they are entitled to.”

According to the U.S. Refugee Processing Center, 314 refugees, including 73 from Syria, settled in New Jersey in the 2015 fiscal year. So far in the current fiscal year, from October 1, 2015 through April 30, 2016, New Jersey has taken in 158 individual refugees. The largest single country from which they came was Syria -- 41 Syrians have been resettled here in the past seven months.

"It seems that rather than help resettle any Syrian refugees, Christie decided to cut the state out of placement of refugees at all,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “By definition, these are people fleeing places that are so dangerous that their lives are at risk just by staying. The Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, so Christie just turned his back on people of all nationalities. It demonstrates a lack of compassion and an abandonment of our historical role as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.”

Refugee resettlement placement decisions are made by the U.S. Department of State, in consultation with states and local officials, Palmer said. ORR was established by the Refugee Act of 1980 to help refugees integrate into their new communities and become self-sufficient. ORR does this through an extensive public-private partnership network and funding to state governments and nonprofit organizations. Since 1980, more than 3 million refugees from some 70 countries have settled in the United States.

Hickey said representatives of national organizations helping with resettlement efforts meet with federal officials to determine the best placements for those refugees who are about to be allowed to enter the U.S.

"They literally sit around a table about once a week," he said. "They start to look at local capacity and local experience ... They try to play to the strengths of local organizations."

For instance, Hickey said Catholic Charities of Camden has had success in settling Iraqis and has people who can speak several Burmese dialects and may be considered as a resettlement agency when new refugees from those areas are ready to be admitted. The agency then considers the best locations.

"We do our best not to overburden any one community, school district, or street," Hickey said. "We try to disperse people so no town feels like we are trying to make it a Mecca for refugees."

The results have been a positive continuation of the American melting pot in parts of Camden County and South Jersey, he added.

"Here is the living embodiment of this small world we inhabit," Hickey said, "next to the native-born child lives a child from Iraq, a child from Burma."

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