Thursday February 15, 2018
Newly confirmed American citizen Halimo Ali, 22, orginally from Somalia but now living
in St. Louis, registers to vote after the citizenship ceremony on Flag Day at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes
ST. LOUIS • The number of refugees coming into St. Louis is expected to drop by about two-thirds from two years ago, resulting in layoffs at the region’s largest resettlement agency.
The steep drop comes after President Donald Trump decided to reduce to 45,000 the maximum number of refugees that would be allowed in the country this year. This follows the sharp cut to 50,000 refugees in 2017 from the 110,000 figure the administration of President Barack Obama had approved. In 2016, Obama had raised the number to 85,000 from a prior cap of 70,000.
Obama approved the progressive two-year bump so the U.S. could accept more Syrian refugees. But after Trump was elected in November 2016, he made good on his campaign promise to tighten borders, including implementing a “Muslim ban.” He has since signed three executive orders placing travel bans on various Muslim majority countries. In addition to Syria, they include Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen (Sudan and Iraq have been dropped from the list). The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last month to rule on the legality of the latest version of the travel ban.
For the International Institute of St. Louis, which helps resettle about 1 percent of the refugees that are approved for legal entry into the U.S. by the State Department, that means a sharp decline in the number of people they serve.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, the institute resettled 1,153 refugees; 118 of those came through the agency’s Springfield, Mo., satellite office. In the next fiscal year, when Trump was elected and took office, the number dropped to a total of 713, with 54 of those in Springfield. During the first four months of this fiscal year, the institute has helped resettle 121 people, 45 of those in the smaller office.
With the number of resettlements dropping significantly, the agency has shut down the refugee program for the remainder of its fiscal year in the Springfield office and has cut 10 positions at its St. Louis office, leaving 70 full-time jobs.
Anna Crosslin, CEO of the International Institute, said agency cuts could go deeper if the number of refugees resettled fell below the estimated 450 for the year. There is typically a surge in the summer, but political climate, policy changes and upheavals in unstable countries around the globe can affect best guesses, she said. The numbers of refugees resettled has dropped significantly before, most notably after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The agency receives federal funding for each refugee it helps resettle, accounting for about 13 percent of its $7.2 million budget. The agency runs several other programs for immigrants and refugees that serve 8,000 people from 75 countries. They include English classes, after-school tutoring, a micro-lending program and fee-based interpretation and translation services. The agency also spends about $300,000 a year to organize the Festival of Nations, which attracts about 125,000 people a year to Tower Grove Park to sample foods from around the world. The agency relies on corporate sponsorship and the sale of food and beverages to help offset the costs and keep it a free event.
Crosslin said that despite a smaller staff, the agency still had a large campus to maintain, including paying utility bills and mortgage payments. Three years ago, the International Institute moved into the old St. Elizabeth Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school that closed in 2013. The institute still owns its former headquarters on South Grand Boulevard and hopes a sale will help ease the financial pinch.
“We’ve got to raise other money. We have some savings, so we have a cushion to help us manage. But we don’t like what we’re having to do, laying off staff, losing experts to help refugee families,” Crosslin said.
Crosslin said a dip in refugees ultimately meant a continued drop in the city’s population, which has been on the decline for more than 60 years. St. Louis has about 311,000 residents, based on population estimates by the Census Bureau. In 1950, the population was more than 856,000.
Population numbers calculated every 10 years by the Census Bureau determine how billions of federal dollars are divvied up to spend on infrastructure such as bridges, roads, schools and hospitals.