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Support system: Federal funds give refugees a start, but communities offer local safety net

FILE PHOTO: Reggie Tarr sits for a portrait in his office in downtown Grand Forks, ND on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Ilhaam Hassan, who came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee, works at a Grand Forks store and as an interpreter. She said she hears misconceptions about how resettlement is funded but says most refugees seek a better life. Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

When she's not behind the counter at Al Amin Grocery in Grand Forks, Ilhaam Hassan is helping fellow members of the local Somali refugee community find their way in a new land.

Hassan, a native of Somalia, came to the U.S. in 1999 when she was just a child. Now in her early 30s, Hassan's fluency in English has opened a role for her as an interpreter with the local office of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the agency tasked with resettling refugees, many of whom are Somalis, in the state's most populous cities: Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks.

With her own passage a distant memory, Hassan now works with those refugees from Somalia who now find themselves in northeast North Dakota.

Even with help from the federal government and local civic groups, she says the transition is difficult for new arrivals.

"People assume that, 'Oh, these newcomers, they have these free benefits and this and that,' " Hassan said, adding the first priority for many refugees is to secure employment and income that can be sent home to relatives. "Even if you get benefits, it's not enough or it won't cover a lot for them."

The costs of resettlement have been questioned by municipal and state politicians such as Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn and Rep. Chris Olson, R-West Fargo, a sponsor of a bill in the Legislature to allow communities to pause new arrivals of refugees.

Though the refugee pipeline has local skeptics, funding for the program comes mainly from the federal government, which finances initial resettlements. County and state dollars directed specifically to people with refugee status are slim, though newcomers are eligible to receive federally funded supplemental aid and subsidized health care through the refugee program for most of their first year of residency.

For an individual refugee, the most basic federal aid for their first eight months in the U.S. could amount to roughly $4,000 in benefits, excluding medical fees.

Refugees also are eligible to draw from the same assistance programs available to established residents, though the available information from the state of North Dakota doesn't show large numbers of refugees are receiving such aid. Local resettlement coordinators say refugee initiatives encourage employment, and new Americans, who often have family to support overseas, say there are more incentives to find work quickly.

Resettlement costs

Reggie Tarr oversees the refugee services of the Grand Forks LSS office and works with the programs geared directly for newcomers.

Tarr—who originally came to the U.S. as a refugee from the west African nation of Liberia before settling in Grand Forks and gaining citizenship—said refugees are accepted to come to the U.S. after being vetted first by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then again by the U.S. Department of State.

Once selected for repatriation, they arrive with legal residency equivalent to a green card.

Tarr said individuals first receive the benefit of a one-time federal grant of $925, a sum paid out on a per-person basis to agencies such as LSS to be spent on the refugee's behalf. The agency's vice president for senior and humanitarian services, Shirley Dykshoorn, said it has the ability to provide an additional $200 in flex spending, but does not necessarily give that to every refugee.

That initial lump sum is known as reception and placement money. Tarr said the grants are used to cover expenses ranging from apartment application fees and security deposits to basic home furnishings.

As the grant is earmarked for individual recipients, Tarr said the initial funding works to the benefit of multimember families but is stretched thin when placing a single refugee in a new setting. In some instances, he said the funding may not be enough without the aid of donated goods and supplies from members of the wider community.

Beyond the resettlement grant, he said refugees are eligible to receive monthly funding for the first eight months of their residency through a federally funded program called refugee cash assistance.

The basic sum for that assistance is $335 per month for a single-person household. That monthly amount increases with family size, meaning a family of two would receive $450 per month. A family of 12, for instance, would get $1,245. Individuals older than 18 are considered independents.

Dykshoorn said the resettlement grants and cash assistance are paid out by LSS, which is reimbursed in full by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Medical services for refugees during their first eight months can be paid through a federally funded program called refugee medical assistance, said Saurav Dahal, LSS refugee health coordinator. Dahal said LSS representatives work with the North Dakota Department of Human Services to draft annual plans outlining the state's approach to providing medical services to refugees.

Refugee medical assistance is similar to the cash program in that it's only available to individuals within their first eight months of residency. The program is typically used by refugees without their own insurance whose income is too high to qualify them for a Medicaid program, Dahal said.

Though medical services offered in the program are paid up-front by the state, the costs are reimbursed by the federal office for resettlement.

Refugees sign promissory notes before their arrival that pledge to repay the interest-free loans that secured their passage—meaning they have to reimburse their costs of transportation to the U.S. This is typically provided in monthly installments through the first 42 months of residency.

The cash assistance program is conditional to the employment status, meaning the aid stops coming once the receiving household starts making a living. Because of that, Tarr said the "main goal" of LSS is to get people employed in the first three months after moving to the U.S.

"We try to provide all our core services in the first 90 days," he said.

To encourage rapid employment, Tarr said LSS offers bonuses to promote early hiring and job retention. For an individual hired in the first month of residency who keeps the same job for three months, LSS provides $400 upon the end of that period. Incentive bonuses extend to individuals who gain employment as far out as their fourth month of residency, though those workers would only receive $100 upon retention of their post for the same three-month timeframe. Either way, for just one person, Tarr said the monthly $325 in cash assistance alone isn't enough to cover expenses.

"Even if you're paid a minimum wage and work a full-time job, you make four times that amount," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to get a job?"

Minimum wage in North Dakota is $7.25 per hour. Minimum-wage workers on the job full time for a month earn $1,160.

General aid

Even with incentives for employment, some in the resettlement program may still require additional help to get started in a new place.

Beyond the refugee-specific programs, Tarr said refugees are eligible to receive standard benefits through county offices, including programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

State data show individuals identified as refugees do take part in benefits programs, though numbers may not count recipients who are former refugees who are now citizens.

Statistics from the North Dakota Department of Human Services for fiscal year 2015 indicate nearly 2,700 refugees received traditional Medicaid services statewide for a total of almost $12 million in benefits. The amount paid on behalf of all North Dakota Medicaid enrollees in that same time period was more than $919 million.

In that same year, there were about 4,200 unduplicated refugee recipients of the SNAP food program statewide, out of a total number of more than 80,700 recipients. Refugee recipients received more than $5.5 million in SNAP benefits, out of a total of almost $77 million.

The cash welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, recorded 355 unduplicated refugee recipients in fiscal year 2015. Statewide, there were more than 6,200 total recipients of that program. Refugees received more than $280,000 dollars in benefits, out of a general total of more than $4.1 million.

SNAP and TANF programs are operated by the state, though both receive federal dollars. The benefits of the food aid program are financed entirely by the federal government, though the distribution is administered by state entities.

TANF is funded by basic federal block grants distributed to states, which in turn create their own programs to deliver the aid to families. However, to receive TANF grants, state governments are required to spend some of their own funding, a sum known as the maintenance of effort. In fiscal year 2015, North Dakota had $9 million in MOE spending, according to data from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities.

Information from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families indicates the state's total TANF and MOE spending and transfers amounted to more than $38.6 million, about 12 percent of which was spent on basic assistance.

Luellen Hart, the program administrator for economic assistance for Grand Forks County, said she doesn't have any data specifying national origin in relation to the county's aid programs. Residents who wish to sign up for economic assistance apply through the county office but register with the state, she said, meaning demographic information isn't locally recorded.

In general, Hart said Medicaid is "by far the very largest expense" within the Grand Forks social assistance programs, particularly in the years following the coverage expansions in the Affordable Care Act. Beyond health-related services, the county also administers food aid, TANF, child-care assistance and fuel assistance for heating low-income homes.

Hart said fuel assistance generally costs the county about $1 million annually for the duration of a season lasting from Oct. 1 to May 31.

On the whole, she said the county has seen a decrease in the TANF program since 1997, when federal welfare programs underwent a series of reforms. Hart said the county also has seen declines in the use of the SNAP program, both in the number of recipient households and in the total amount in issuances.

In 2014, Hart said, the total annual issuance of food stamps in Grand Forks County was more than $7.2 million in aid. That number increased in 2015 to about $7.7 million before falling in 2016 back to around the level of 2014.

Even with fluctuations, Hart said the most recent levels are at a relative low compared to where they were at the start of the decade.

"Back in 2010, 2011 and 2012, we were over $9 million each year," Hart said.

She attributed the high usage to the financial recession, which drove up usage rates of SNAP programs nationwide.

Questions of cost

The sometimes opaque nature of the process which resettles refugees in local communities has raised questions of the program's burdens and benefits to North Dakota residents.

In January, Rep. Olson introduced House Bill 1427 in an attempt to gauge the costs of resettlement on a community and state level.

Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, a co-sponsor of the bill, said shortly after its introduction that the proposal was an attempt to gather information for informed decisionmaking.

"I believe that we need to have transparency and input from the stakeholders on where refugee resettlement happens and to what degree," Koppelman said.

To respond to the perceived lack of transparency of the refugee pipeline, HB 1427 initially probed at the cost side of resettlement while raising the question of whether municipalities could withdraw from the initiative altogether. The bill called for a comprehensive study of the state's capacity for taking in new refugees, a status that would encompass housing, education and medical resources available to potential newcomers. Part of the focus of that study would have identified the relative cost of providing essential services in relation to the burden on existing populations of North Dakotans.

The bill since has been overhauled and amended to a legislative management study suggesting an overview of resettlement programs and capacities be completed before the 2019 session.

Dykshoorn said LSS takes into account many of the elements identified in the suggestion when determining its capacity to resettle refugees in a given fiscal year. Even still, the pipeline can be unpredictable at times. In fiscal year 2016, LSS resettled a total of 558 refugees in North Dakota, a population more than one-fifth higher than the agency had been expecting for the year.

The refugees who came to North Dakota last year originated from 11 countries, with the main populations hailing from Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The people resettled in Grand Forks primarily come from those countries, Tarr said, with the Bhutanese making up the largest single group.

Of that statewide number for 2016, 402 refugees were resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Over the past few years, Tarr said Grand Forks has accepted about 100 refugees annually, which is a measure of the projected capacity of the area to absorb newcomers.

The 2016 fiscal year is the fourth-highest year for resettlement in North Dakota in the past two decades, with 621 refugees coming in 2000, 616 in 1999 and 590 in 2014.

More than a month after HB 1427 was amended, Dykshoorn said LSS wouldn't be opposed to gaining more information to help guide its mission. However, Dykshoorn said, LSS believes the bill failed to account for the complexities of secondary migration, refugees resettled in one state who move to other communities on their own initiative. She also said the bill discounted the potential benefits of resettlement.

"We would welcome having better data and research regarding the cost and benefit of having a more diverse population in communities," Dykshoorn said, "but the bill as it had been written before was assuming only cost and then assuming that community could determine who got to live there."

Resettling refugees does have its costs. But in Hassan's experience, the refugees she knows are looking for a self-sufficiency that was mostly unattainable in their previous lives. She describes that as the "American dream."

"It's a big change from coming from back home to here," she said, describing people who may have come from refugee camps where work, education and advancement were closed off. "They want stability."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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