More than 77,000 refugees were expected to come to the United States in 2011. Instead, fewer than 55,000 will arrive, because of new security screening implemented abruptly this winter.

The U.S. State Department works with 11 agencies—including five Christian organizations—to help refugees start their new lives in America. The average number admitted annually since 1980 is 98,000, according to the Refugee Council USA.

Like many other resettlement offices, the World Relief branch in Durham, North Carolina, relies on per-refugee grants to pay staff. When no refugees arrived in Durham between late February and April, the office cut employee pay by 8 hours a week. Nationally, World Relief and Church World Service offices have experienced significant layoffs because of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy.

In February, World Relief Durham was preparing for new refugees when the arrival flights were suddenly deleted from the tracking system. Resettlement director Andrew Castle says he called headquarters and heard that there were hundreds of unexpectedly canceled flights, attributed to a new DHS policy that requires a pre-departure check to make sure refugees are still eligible to come to the U.S.

"It seems … that even the State Department was somewhat caught off guard," said Dan Kosten, chair of the Refugee Council USA.

The delay caused by this newly required clearance can last past the expiration of refugees' medical clearances. That would require them to start much of the resettlement process over again. Vicky Knight, deputy director for programs at Church World Service, says getting caught in this cycle can be dangerous for vulnerable refugees.

In the past, similar screenings took place six months to two years prior to a refugee's flight to the U.S., says Kosten. He explains that DHS was concerned that during the long processing period, "refugees could be pulled into activities that would disqualify them."

The number of cases on hold because of terrorism concerns rose to 373 per month by May. Because the 2001 Patriot Act defines "material support" to terrorists very broadly, refugee families who have paid ransoms, been victims of armed robbery, or provided medical care to members of certain groups, for example, have to wait indefinitely for admission or green cards.

Jenny Yang, World Relief's director of advocacy and policy, says Liberian women who were forced to wash dishes for their kidnappers fit into this category. Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Sudanese are most affected by the terrorism-related holds, said Yang.

Many of these refugees are Christians. Emily Gray, executive director of World Relief DuPage in Wheaton, Illinois, says refugees can revitalize the American church. "About 15 refugee churches started in the 30 years that we've been working here," she said.

After this summer, it may be more difficult for Christian refugees to reach the U.S. The Lautenberg Amendment, which expedited resettlement for persecuted religious minorities in Iran, the former USSR, and Indochina, expired on June 1. The program has admitted 2,000 to 3,000 refugees every year, said Yang.

The State Department responded to resettlement agencies' concerns about the low number of arrivals by guaranteeing funding for 60,000 refugee admissions. This ensures that agencies will be able to retain staff, no matter how few refugees actually arrive on U.S. soil.

Resettlement agencies are trying to undo the damage, even as they celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention.

But the effects will likely be far-reaching. Gray says her office's job-creation program will be underfunded because of the reduced number of participants. Castle worries that property managers will be unwilling to sign future contracts for refugees after he had to cancel six apartment rentals this winter.

"In the long run, these security screenings are a good thing," said Castle. "[But] it didn't happen right, and it's had a devastating effect across the refugee network."

Related Elsewhere:

Additional coverage of refugees and immigration includes:

Migrating Ministry | One refugee pastor is key to the resettlement of Bhutanese in Texas. (May 11, 2011)
Recession Hits Refugees | Nationwide job shortage pushes limits of resettlement system. (June 18, 2009)
The New Refugees | As the U.S. opens to Iraqis and Burmese, refugee ministries must adjust. (October 7, 2008)
Seeking Biblical Principles to Inform Immigration Policy | Scripture provides more than easy slogans and soft platitudes about welcoming foreigners. (September 20, 2006)

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