San Diego still top county for refugee arrivals despite reductions

Even though overall arrival numbers in fiscal 2017 dropped by more than half from the previous year, San Diego County continued its legacy as the California county that took in the most refugees.

In a year that began with a promise of more refugees than ever before coming to the U.S. and ended with an ongoing court battle over how many and whom the president could block from coming, about 1,500 refugees resettled in San Diego County, according to data from the State Department. That’s down from just over 3,100 the year before, and it’s the only time that number has dipped below 2,000 in the last decade.

“The fact that we remained the largest county, it definitely makes us proud to continue the tradition of San Diego being a safe haven,” said Etleva Bejko, director of refugee and immigration services for Jewish Family Service, a resettlement agency.

Where refugees resettle once the U.S. agrees to take them is a complicated decision-making process that factors in whether they already have family living here, which agencies have the capability to support them and which places have infrastructure to help them succeed. That often means that places that already have large populations of people from a country will continue to take refugees from that country.

San Diego County has been known for leading the state in refugee arrivals since large numbers of Iraqis fleeing war began arriving in late summer of 2007.

The president has the power to determine how many refugees will come to the U.S. each fiscal year. Former President Barack Obama set the cap at 110,000 at the beginning of fiscal 2017.

President Donald Trump reduced the number to 50,000, ordered a four-month halt to the refugee program and blocked people from certain countries from coming to the U.S. in his controversial travel ban.

As court challenges have altered, paused and restarted implementation of Trump’s travel ban, refugee resettlement agencies have scrambled to keep up with changes.

Bejko said her organization has had to reorganize support efforts because of the overall decreases in arrivals. Resettlement agencies receive funding based on the number of refugees that they help.

They’re now more dependent on private donations from the community, she said.

Three members of the Tarakji family, originally from Damascus, Syria, were some of the few who made it to the U.S. after the travel ban. The slowdown in accepting refugees has separated them from two other members of their family.

Catholic Charities resettled mother Alshifaa Hammoush, 52, father Manaf Tarakji, 58, and daughter Maria Tarakji, 21, in April. Two sons, Yasser Tarakji, 29, and Yaman Tarakji, 27, remain in Saudi Arabia.

They had already been trying to immigrate to the U.S. to reunite with their extended family in San Diego County when the war in Syria broke out. After bombing destroyed the pharmacy where Hammoush worked and scared off Manaf Tarakji’s clients for his electronics repair business, and a car exploded outside their building, the family fled in 2013 to Saudi Arabia, where the oldest son was living and working.

Once in Saudi Arabia, they couldn’t continue the process to get family-sponsored green cards.

They stayed there in limbo, unable to fully establish new lives because they were on visitor visas that they had to renew every three months, until they were accepted as refugees to the U.S. Yaman Tarakji was separated into his own refugee case because of his age, and he is still waiting for processing.

The oldest brother, Yasser Tarakji, also tried to apply but never heard back from the U.N. agency that registers refugees.

The family feels a mix of emotions about being here. They know that fewer refugees, especially Syrians, have been able to come this year.

“We feel too happy,” Manaf Tarakji said.

“We feel special,” Maria Tarakji added.

“We were lucky to be able to come,” Manaf Tarakji concluded.

Still, separation from the two sons is painful for all of them. Whenever Maria Tarakji looks at photos from their last day together in Saudi Arabia, her eyes wet with tears.

“The U.S. was accepting refugees forever. It’s unfair to do this now,” Maria Tarakji said. “It’s really hard to live here, and our brother is not here.”

She said she’s had to take responsibility for tasks that her brothers used to handle, like choosing an Internet router. Both brothers work in computer programming and repair.

They rely on hope that they will be able to reunite, she said, but news of increasing restrictions on refugee resettlement makes hope difficult.

“It’s hard to start from zero wherever you go,” Maria Tarakji said. “If you have some family members not with you, it’s more difficult. This news and these orders, it’s really depressing us. It makes it harder.”

Those who worry about how thoroughly refugees are vetted before coming to the U.S. were pleased that fewer came. They are still concerned that the ones who did resettle might threaten national security.

Jeff Schwilk, founder of San Diegans for Secure Borders and a leader of the Minutemen, a vigilante group that patrolled the southwest border with guns and was later the subject of several lawsuits, was troubled that more than 450 of the resettled refugees in San Diego came from Syria, Somalia and Iran — countries that are part of Trump’s most recent travel ban.

“If any one of these 450 new refugees have been radicalized or have terror group connections, that represents a huge threat to San Diego and our large and vital military presence in San Diego County,” Schwilk said.

Ernie Griffes, who was part of a movement last year to get rid of Imperial Beach’s label as a welcoming city because he feared it would bring unvetted refugees to his neighborhood, did not like that San Diego is still top county for resettlement.

“As the numbers being taken in have been cut back to limits a couple years ago and vetting has been improved, we should be less concerned about terrorists coming in through refugees. But we’re not,” Griffes said. “The puzzlement is why so many are being dumped here in San Diego, one of the most expensive places to live in the nation and way short on adequate housing and work for people already here. What about putting them in lower-cost cities in Midwestern and Southern states? The weather is not as nice, but housing costs are much cheaper.”

Robert Moser, executive director at Catholic Charities, another San Diego resettlement agency, said there are other costs associated with resettling someone that have to be considered.

Because funding to support refugees is based on the number of arrivals, Moser said, when there are fewer arrivals, agencies have to concentrate their resources at hubs like San Diego that can care for them.

“We have the capacity in terms of the expertise, and then we do our best to get people jobs and live where they can afford to pay for the housing,” Moser said.

When the agencies thought 110,000 refugees were coming, they had taken steps to open new locations to spread out resettlement, he said, but those plans were scrapped after the election.

Even with the dramatic decrease in arrivals, San Diego County took in more refugees in fiscal 2017 than many states did. If the county were a state, it would rank 15th nationally, behind Kentucky.

California received 5,160 refugees, more than any other state.

Los Angeles, the county that resettled the second highest number of refugees in California, took in 1,457 refugees last year, a 35 percent decrease from the previous year’s 2,255 refugees.

Mireille Cronin Mather, regional director for International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency, said that the organization’s Los Angeles office was less affected by the year’s changes to the refugee program because of the nationalities it tends to resettle.

Cronin Mather said that while her organization has had to lay off some staff to account for the funding changes, because of private donations and a reworked program, it has been able to expand support for those who do arrive.

She is worried what future years will mean for her organization and the refugees it helps. She is also concerned that the Trump administration may process fewer refugees than the new cap allows, leaving possible spots unfilled.

Trump set the cap for this fiscal year at 45,000, the lowest since the refugee program started in 1980.

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