Texas’ refugee resettlement programs are bracing for what could be a huge blow – one that stakeholders say could weaken the state's support system for years to come.
White House officials recently announced plans to resettle the fewest number of refugees in recent history. The administration set the country’s cap at about 18,000 refugees – the lowest since the program was established in 1980.
“The newest numbers announced will devastate the program,” said Russell Smith, the CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, which is the largest resettlement group in the state.
Refugee Services of Texas is reimbursed by the federal government for every refugee it resettles. Because of that, Smith said, this new cap comes with a big financial cost.
“[It] wouldn’t be a knockout blow, but it would be pretty devastating to the organization and more specifically to the communities in which we serve,” he said.
And that’s even if groups in Texas get to resettle any refugees in the first place.
Around the time the new cap was announced, the Trump administration also issued an executive order that gives cities and states a 90-day window to decide whether they want to block any refugees from resettling in their area. While some city leaders, including Austin’s, have said they want to continue taking in refugees, it’s unclear whether a state-level decision will be the final say.
“We don’t have a lot of the details about the executive order,” said Erica Schmidt-Pertnoy, the senior programs director for Refugee Services of Texas. “So, we are trying to piece things together as we learn more information, as well.”
The ongoing uncertainty surrounding the state’s network of support services for refugees during the Trump administration has already forced some groups to close. Caritas of Austin announced last year that cuts to the refugee numbers led to the 44-year-old program’s demise.
These support programs can be a lifeline for many refugees coming to Texas.
Desire Nizigiyimana, a former judge from Burundi, was forced to flee his country several years ago. He issued a ruling that the Burundi government didn’t like – and almost paid for it with his life. Nizigiyimana said the government is still torturing the family members he left behind to further punish him.
“Refugees don’t have any choice,” Nizigiyimana said. “There is no choice you are given when it comes to running away from your country, because there is war and killing and torture.”
Nizigiyimana said the services provided to him when he finally made it to the U.S. were so important – so important that he now works at Interfaith Action of Central Texas. He said he wanted to help people who are in the same spot he was.
“We are helping refugees to connect to others, to American people and to be able to communicate and to be able to get jobs,” he said. Texas' large network of nonprofits assisting refugees is partly why the state has historically resettled more refugees than any other state.
Nizigiyimana said it’s disheartening to see programs like Interfaith Action take big hits under the Trump administration, which has provided a stark contrast to the Obama administration that set its cap at more than 80,000 refugees.
To stay afloat, Smith said Refugee Services of Texas has diversified the kinds of populations they serve. For example, the group is providing services to more victims of sex trafficking, which gives them more financial support from the state. He said they plan to “survive until they can actually thrive.”
Flowers said her group doesn’t rely financially on the number of people resettled like Smith’s group does, but she said her group has felt cuts, nonetheless.
“We have cut back on some programming,” Flowers said. “We want to make sure everything is not dismantled. So we want to at least keep the shell, the structure in place.”
Keeping that shell intact is getting harder and harder, though. Smith said he thinks the network in Texas just won’t be the same after all this. He said it’s unlikely the state will be able to resettle as many refugees as it used to.
“Even when the country gets back to a place where we are embracing refugees,” Smith said, "the capacity to do that will be dramatically diminished.”
And if Texas – where about 10% of the nation’s refugees are resettled – is struggling, it’s likely the national network of services is struggling too.
“Just having all these punches by all of these deductions, and all these lowering of levels – it can wear you out,” Flowers said. “But the commitment is that people’s lives are so important that we are not going to stop and we are not going to stop fighting.”