As the U.S. slams the door shut on immigrants from the Middle East, the number of refugees settled in Michigan has plummeted 75% over the past year, according to new statistics from the State Dept.
The decrease has concerned immigrant advocates who say the reduction is hurting Michigan's economy, population growth and persecuted communities such as Iraqi Christians.
"The region has greatly benefited from the labor, the entrepreneurship, the economic activity of refugees," said Steve Tobocman, founder and executive director of Global Detroit, which touts the benefits of immigrants in Michigan. "Refugees are very much a part of strengthening our communities."
In the 2018 fiscal year, which was from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, Michigan took in only 647 refugees — the lowest number since 2006 when 645 refugees were admitted — compared to 2,536 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year and 4,258 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, the last full fiscal year under the leadership of President Barack Obama.
That's an 85% drop in refugees in Michigan compared to the first full fiscal year under President Donald Trump.
During the same time period, there was a 74% drop nationally in refugees, with only 22,491 refugees admitted in the U.S., compared to 53,716 in 2017 and 84,994 in 2016.
The overall decline is driven by a sharp reduction in the number of refugees from the Arab nations, especially Iraq and Syria. For years, Michigan took in a sizable number of refugees from Iraq and Syria: from 2002 to 2018, Michigan had the second highest number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees after California.
Just five years ago, in 2013, Michigan took in 3,431 Iraqi refugees. In 2016 and 2017, Iraqis and Syrians were the two biggest refugee groups in Michigan
But under Pres. Trump, the U.S. has tightened the flow of immigrants, especially those from the Middle East, citing security concerns. The current administration imposed a travel ban on some Muslim-majority nations and U.S. officials have made it more difficult for immigrants from Arab countries to enter the country, say advocates.
In the 2018 fiscal, Michigan only had 8 refugees from Iraq, compared to 802 in 2017 and 1,119 in 2016. Among Syrian refugees, there were 1,374 Syrians in the 2016 fiscal year in Michigan, 683 in 2017, and only 4 in 2018.
Now, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo are the largest group in Michigan, making up more than 43% of Michigan's refugee population in 2018.
There were 279 refugees from the Congo settled in Michigan in 2018, with 96 refugees from Myanmar (Burma) the second biggest group and 92 from Bhutan. Many of them are being settled in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. Nationally, refugees from the Congo also were the largest group, with 7,878 of them settled in the U.S in 2018.
Tobocman and other immigrant advocates say the decrease in refugees is hurting the economy, citing a study last year by Global Detroit and the University of Michigan that said refugees contributed up to $295 million to the economy in 2016 alone.
The study also said that resettling refugees in southeastern Michigan created between 1,800 and 2,300 jobs.
"A lot of refugees are business owners, much more proportionally than others," said Vickie Thompson-Sandy, president of Samaritas, a refugee resettlement agency in Michigan. "They tend to be entrepreneurs and employ others."
Also, refugees work in jobs, such as in agriculture, that Americans are reluctant to work in, she said.
Samaritas, formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, is the 4th largest social services agency in the U.S. Like other agencies, it has had to lay off workers and shutter offices as the number of refugees decline.
At its peak, Samaritas had four offices across Michigan with 50 to 60 employees who helped resettle refugees, said Thompson-Sandy. Today, it's down to two offices, in Troy and Grand Rapids, with only three employees.
The decrease in refugees has especially concerned metro Detroit's sizable Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) community. Given the persecution that minority Christians face in Iraq, the U.S. should do more to admit them, say local advocates.
Last month, Chaldean leaders met with Vice President Mike Pence in West Bloomfield, pleading with him to try and increase the number of Iraqi refugees.
Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, in West Bloomfield, stands outside United States Capitol in Washington D.C. (Photo: Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute)
"We are very concerned about the decrease in refugee admissions and addressed the issue with VP Pence when he visited Michigan last month," said Martin Manna, who leads the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights. "We provided his staff with a summary of displaced Middle Eastern minorities and the challenges they face."
Manna says the U.S. could "prioritize ethnic and religious minorities that were victims of genocide."
Joseph Kassab, president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield, has been meeting with State Department officials on the refugee issue.
"We want to see better numbers" of Iraqi Christian refugees coming to Michigan, Kassab said. "We're been fighting this, trying to remind the U.S. administration there is a need to resettle more of the vulnerable people who are falling victim to religious persecution."
The Trump administration has expressed concerns about security with refugees, but Kassab and other advocates say that refugees are not terrorists, but rather the victims of terrorism. They say there is careful vetting of the refugees.
Moreover, many of the potential refugees from Iraq already have family members in Michigan and Iraqi-American support groups here that will make it easier for them to assimilate, Kassab said. There is currently a long waiting list of Iraqis who have already been vetted with family members in the U.S.
Zayad Jabo, 34 of Sterling Heights speaks to the Detroit Free Press following the results of a report released by Global Detroit and the University of Michigan on the economic impact of refugees in metro Detroit at the Chaldean Cultural Center in West Bloomfield, Mich., Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Zeyad Jabo, 34, of Sterling Heights, arrived in Michigan three years ago after facing persecution in Iraq as a minority Christian and for working for a contractor tied to the U.S. military. "In the beginning, it was really hard," Jabo said of his new life in the U.S. But now, he works as a senior engineer in the technology division at Comerica Bank. "For me, this is a land of dreams," Jabo said. (Photo: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)
Since 2002, Michigan (the 10th biggest state by population) has taken in 40,040 refugees, the eighth highest number among all 50 states. In 2016, it took in the fourth highest amount, but in 2018, it dropped to the 13th highest.
Despite the pleading of immigrant advocates, there will still probably be a small amount of refugees admitted over the next year.
The Trump administration announced last month that there will be a maximum of 30,000 refugees in 2019, compared to the cap set at 45,000 for 2018. Despite the 45,000 cap, only 22,491 were allowed in.
Announcing the reduced cap last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended their refugee policies.
"America’s commitment to the most vulnerable also extends well beyond our immigration system," Pompeo said. "We are putting a new focus on increasing assistance to refugees and other displaced people as close to their home countries as possible. ... Trump pledged to keep the American people safe by more carefully vetting those who want to come to our country ... we can achieve the ideal of continuing to assist the world’s most vulnerable people without losing sight of our first duty: serving the American people."
Contact Niraj Warikoo:firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo
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