Refugee resettlement rebounding in midstate city after sharp drop

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FILE PHOTO: In this Feb. 15, 2017, photo, Eric Hoover teaches his class of immigrant and refugee students at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)

(Harrisburg) — Refugee resettlement is rebounding in a midstate city once dubbed “America’s Refugee Capital” by the BBC.

Lancaster earned the title for taking in 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the country.

A refugee is someone living outside of their homeland because of conflict, war, or persecution because of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion.

Church World Services (CWS) Lancaster alone resettled 407 people in 2016. The agency helps refugees find housing and employment, enroll in school and ESL courses, and apply for citizenship.

But when Donald Trump took office in 2017, one of his first acts was to stop all refugees entering the country for 120 days.

That caused a backlog in the very complicated vetting process refugees go through.

“That meant that all of those clearances that were good for during that time–they had all expired,” said Stephanie Gromek, development and communications coordinator for CWS Lancaster.

The agency’s resettlements dropped to 198 last year.

“A 120-day suspension; we knew that that meant at least another year to year-and-a-half before we would start to see arrivals pick back up again and that was indeed the case,” Gromek said.

Some refugees in the pipeline have since been able to renew their clearances, easing the backlog. Gromek said they are already up to 187 cases so far this year.

Since 2016, most refugees resettled in Lancaster have been from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gromek said. Over the past decade other significant populations have come from former Soviet states, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), and Somalia.

CWS and other resettlement agencies are calling for passage of the GRACE Act in Congress, which would set a minimum goal of 95,000 refugee admissions per year.

“Ninety-five thousand…is the average presidential determination since the start of the program in 1980,” CWS Lancaster office director Sheila Mastropietro told WITF’s Smart Talk.” It’s now 30,000. We can do better.”

While the Trump Administration’s goal for this year is 30,000, groups such as International Rescue Committee have pointed out the pace of resettlements is falling short of that goal.

Meanwhile, Gromek said CWS Lancaster has seen an increased urgency in demand for immigration legal services in the past few years.

In 2017, the office handled 1,311 applications for a variety of programs, including permanent residency, naturalization, family reunification, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and travel and work authorizations. That grew to 1,984 last year.

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