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Digging Deeper: Madison refugee resettlement grinds to a halt as Biden delays new plan

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refugee camp
Tents at a refugee camp

MADISON (WKOW) -- On the campaign trail and after taking office, President Joe Biden said he was going to raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S. each year. At first, refugee resettlement agencies were hopeful and excited. But two-and-a-half months into his term, they're starting to get frustrated because little has changed.

Before President Donald Trump left office, he set the cap for the 2021 fiscal year at 15,000 refugees. Biden has said he'll raise it to 62,500. But to do that, he needs to issue a presidential determination.

"That hasn't happened," Dawn Berney, the executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison, said Saturday. "Until that happens and the quotas are changed, the folks who are supposed to be coming are not eligible to come to the United States."

Berney said JSS was set to help a family resettle in Madison in March, but that didn't happen.

"Last month, a number of people, including people who were supposed to arrive in Madison, had their flights canceled," she said. "For Madison, it was a family of four or five, but overall, it was somewhere in the range of 200 to 300."

JSS and other similar agencies made arrangements for those refugees under the assumption Biden would issue the order that would raise the cap, Berney said. When that didn't happen, the refugees no longer qualified to come to the U.S.

Now, they're waiting, but Berney said time isn't on their side.

"Medical clearances [are] only good for a couple of months," she said. "So, if you miss your window, you have to go back through the process again, and it's that much longer of a wait time before you will actually be able to come to Madison."

She said it's impossible to know how long it would take a refugee to go through the process again if their clearance expires, but she said it could take years.

And that's not the only challenge facing refugees who were set to come to the U.S. and then had plans change.

"When somebody knows that they have a plane ticket, that's the point where they work on breaking their lease," Berney said. "More importantly, they sell all of their possessions because they can't take them with them. So these are families who are waiting to come to the United States, and they really truly have absolutely nothing at this point, even less than they had before. So it's an awful situation to be in."

Refugee numbers drop sharply nationwide

The number of refugees resettling in the U.S. has been dropping since fiscal year 2016, when 84,995 refugees came to the country. During fiscal year 2020, just under 12,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. For 2021, there's been an even steeper decline.

The Refugee Processing Center, which is part of the State Department, reports 2,050 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in the first six months of fiscal year 2021, from October 1 to March 31. Sixty-nine of those people have settled in Wisconsin.

But none have come to Madison.

"Madison has not resettled a single refugee since September 2020," Berney said. "So, it's been more than six months since our last refugee arrived."

Berney said JSS has helped 171 refugees settle in Madison since the agency started resettlements in December 2016. The agency hit its high in fiscal year 2019, when they helped bring 64 people to the area.

But Berney said her goal is much higher. She said JSS has the resources to help up to 100 refugees each year.

Timing is everything

As refugee resettlement advocates urge the Biden administration to make policy changes, Berney said the future of her organization's work hangs in the balance.

"If we continue to be waiting and waiting for new refugees to come, it becomes difficult to find the funds to make sure that [my staff] can stay employed," she said. "By the end of [20]21, if we are not seeing new clients, we can't keep staff on because they need to have somebody to serve."

Changes to staffing levels will have a ripple effect on the services the agency is able to provide in the future, Berney said.

"If I don't have staff, or if I'm piecing together staff from a bunch of different programs, we're just not going to be as effective," she said.

But she said if Biden puts his plan into play soon, JSS will be ready to respond very quickly.

"We could do it tomorrow," she said. "If cases were to start coming, we would be immediately ready to resettle."

So now, Berney has just one thing to say to Biden.

"Please, change the quota system that is currently in place and increase the number to the 62,500 that you promised early in your administration," she said. "We're not asking for more than what you've already said that you're going to do."

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Caroline Dade

Weekend Evening Anchor/Reporter, 27 News

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