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Officials seeing evolving federal refugee policy’s impact in ND

Najuma Baker (center) speaks with fellow English learning classmates Hamdiya Hassana (right) and Lul Haji (left) at the Kvasager Learning Center in Grand Forks. All three women were participating in a language class hosted and taught by volunteers of the Global Friends Coalition, a local organization that focuses on refugee integration. (Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 7
Darli Luna (center), from Venezuela, lists what she is thankful for Wednesday during an English learning activity taught by volunteers of the Global Friends Coalition. Luna worked through the activity with classmates Nidia Figeroa (left) and Nancy Jiménez (right) at the Kvasager Center in Grand Forks. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald) 2 / 7
Lul Haji (right) tells Global Friends Coalition volunteer Tori Johnson (center) what she is thankful for during an English learning course the day before Thanksgiving. Despite a decline in the numbers of refugees resettled in the U.S. and in North Dakota, Global Friends leader Cynthia Shabb said volunteer interest in local resettlement efforts is likely at a record high. (Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 7
Global Friends Coalition volunteer Tori Johnson leads an English learning course Wednesday at the Kvasager Center in Grand Forks. The coalition takes on local refugee integration efforts. Volunteers meet with refugees who live in the Grand Forks community to provide a number of services, including language and U.S. citizenship classes. (Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 7
Nidia Figeroa (left), from El Salvador, and Darli Luna (right), of Venezuela, share a laugh during a Thanksgiving-themed activity at an English language class held the day before the holiday and hosted by the Global Friends Coalition. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)5 / 7
Global Friends Coalition volunteer Tori Johnson spent the Wednesday before Thanksgiving coaching adult students from the Grand Forks refugee community through English language exercises. Johnson, retired director of special education for Grand Forks Public Schools, began volunteering with her husband, Mike, approximately two years ago. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)6 / 7
Global Friends Coalition volunteer Mike Johnson (top) speaks with students from the Grand Forks refugee community during an English learning course. Johnson began volunteering with the coalition with his wife, Tori, two years ago after retiring as a principal from Grand Forks Public Schools. (Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)7 / 7

Amid a year of jostling federal policy around refugees, those who work closely in bringing vetted people to North Dakota are expecting a continued decline in resettlements.

The agency tasked with working with the federal government to resettle refugees in the state is Lutheran Social Services, a Fargo-based nonprofit. Shirley Dykshoorn manages that resettlement effort and, while she says the projected total of 352 people bound for resettlement in fiscal year 2018 is approximately in line with the LSS yearly average, the number represents a drop from the past few years.

Looking forward, a dwindling national quota for refugees paired with executive actions such as the proposed travel ban have left resettlement agencies unsure of where they stand.

"Everybody's waiting to see what happens next," Dykshoorn said. "We've been riding with the rollercoaster."

In fiscal year 2017, LSS resettled a total of 421 people in multiple North Dakota cities. The year before that, the agency resettled 563 people.

The drop-off isn't uncharacteristic for LSS, nor is the yearly total the lowest the agency has seen. North Dakota resettlements hit 20-year high and low points within a span of just two years, peaking at 633 people in fiscal year 2000 before falling off to just 51 people in 2002.

But the reduced number of refugees now coming to the state is reflective of a broader decline in vetted people being accepted by the U.S. as a whole. Dykshoorn said the refugee population approved to move to the country in 2018 is 45,000, down from 50,000 capped the year before by elected President Donald Trump.

For 2016, the national quota was set at 110,000 refugees. While the total number of refugees has decreased, so too has the list of nations from where they might be coming.

The most recent version of the travel ban as signed by Trump identifies eight countries, mainly Muslim-majority ones such as Syria, Libya and Somalia, and would prohibit nationals from those states to enter the U.S., even as vetted refugees. The latest ban reduced the total number of countries on the list but added Venezuela and North Korea for the first time.

The ban has undergone numerous judicial challenges and subsequent rewrites. But even as its legitimacy has been questioned in court, the executive order has had a de facto influence on who can come to the U.S.

For the past several years, people from Somalia have been the second-largest ethnic population resettled as refugees in North Dakota, trailing behind people from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. With Somalis now struggling to gain entry, LSS is now expecting this year to primarily settle people from Bhutan and the central African nation of Congo.

The total population for resettlement is lower than it has been, but Dykshoorn said the agency's offices in Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck are all on track to meet their individual targets for fiscal year 2018. As with most years, Fargo will accept the highest number of people, with this year's projection set at 252. Grand Forks is expecting to take 50 people, as is Bismarck.

Integration volunteers showing record interest

The reduced number of resettlements has prompted LSS to examine its personnel hours and redirect its resources. With fewer refugees, Dykshoorn said her office is focusing more on providing services for other groups of immigrants.

Just as in Fargo, the Grand Forks branch is also now assessing its staffing needs in light of the fewer people scheduled for arrival. Reggie Tarr oversees the local LSS refugee programs.

"Our numbers have been cut in half," Tarr said of the incoming population he's expecting to see this year in Grand Forks. His office has resettled about 100 people per year for the past few years.

Even with dramatically lower numbers, Tarr said the office has yet to make any major personnel decisions. Refugee resettlement is too unpredictable to make any sudden moves, he said, and the agency is "holding on to see how things unfold."

"Nobody knows when another executive order will come in or what might be triggered by something else," Tarr said.

Resettlement might be down, but citizen interest in refugee aid appears to be running strong in Grand Forks. Cynthia Shabb is executive director of the Global Friends Coalition, a nonprofit organization that brings in local volunteers to help integrate refugees who live in the community.

"I'd say our volunteer numbers remain very high, and volunteer commitment is probably the highest it's ever been," Shabb said. "I think we're going to close out this year with many more volunteer hours reported to us than any other year."

Global Friends offers a number of services to refugees in Grand Forks, from gathering donations of household furniture to teaching classes for arrivals to hone their English language skills and prepare for U.S. citizenship exams. Since the organization also works with secondary refugees, or people who first arrived elsewhere in the U.S. but have since moved to Grand Forks, Shabb says the number of individuals served by the coalition has remained pretty consistent.

Right now, she says the group's biggest challenge is funding. Declining levels of resettlement seem to have reduced the priority level among some grant sources to provide dollars to refugee-related programs, Shabb said. And the national political mood has made other sources nervous.

"Some of these other grants have simply changed their focus," she said. "At least one has come out and said, with the current climate, the way it is in the country right now, they're not going to fund refugee work, or at least what we wanted to do, because they didn't want us to be a target of hostility."

Shabb thought that attitude was counterproductive, especially in light of the continued need for services for refugees who are already in the country. For those who focus mainly on resettling those still outside—and especially for the people waiting to be resettled—it's still not clear to what extent the current conditions will determine the future.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty right now," Dykshoorn said.

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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