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Texas is resettling almost 80 percent fewer refugees

"There’s a stark contrast to what the refugee resettlement program looks like now compared to in past years," said Erica Schmidt-Portnoy, the area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Austin.

Erica Schmidt-Portnoy, the area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Austin says to not have refugees coming in is "hard to watch."

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Texas has resettled dramatically fewer refugees in the past year, figures from Refugee Services of Texas show.

The organization said 3,518 people were resettled between October 2016 and March 2017. Between October 2017 and March of this year, only 736 were resettled. That’s a 79 percent decrease.

Ahmed Assadi is one of those few people. He moved to Austin from Afghanistan in November with his wife and two young daughters.

Assadi worked for a company that contracted with the U.S. government and NATO forces. He said the job provided him with a good living.

“I had a good life in my country,” he said. “I had my own house – everything. I had a good salary.”

But helping American and NATO forces fight a war in Afghanistan also comes with serious risks.

“It’s clear for everyone, the security situation is not good in my country, especially for those people who work with the U.S. government or NATO forces," he said. "It was not good for me to stay in my country and that’s why I planned to leave – to have a better life for my kids and especially for my wife.”

So Assadi applied for a visa offered to people who work with the U.S. government. The process took about two years, which he said is pretty fast.

“Even some people are waiting for five years,” he said. “They didn’t get their visas. That’s why for me, two years, that’s normal.”

Erica Schmidt-Portnoy, the area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Austin, said that process is getting longer and fewer people are being resettled.

"There’s a stark contrast to what the refugee resettlement program looks like now compared to in past years,” said Schmidt-Portnoy, who has been with the organization for more than six years.

She said the slowdown is happening because of Trump administration policies aimed at stopping refugees from coming to the U.S. – including travel bans, which have been in and out of court.

“All of that has resulted in a slow trickle of the program at this point and a trickle of refugees who have no other opportunity for resettlement in any other part of the world,” she said.

Historically, Texas has resettled a big share of the country’s refugees. Schmidt-Portnoy said that’s because the state has had a strong economy and refugees can find work here. But, she said, things are different now.

“To not have refugees coming in is hard to watch,” she said.

Simone Talma Flowers, executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, said the past year has been difficult. Her group provides services like English classes to refugees in Austin.

“We know that there is a world refugee crisis happening,” she said. “This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and yet we are seeing such a harsh decline in the numbers of refugees that are new arrivals.”

The reduction isn’t just a moral and humanitarian failing, Flowers said, it’s also putting the entire Refugee Resettlement Program at financial risk. She said that includes programs serving people who are already here.

“The funding that comes is tied to a lot of new arrivals,” Flowers said. “So when there is not many new arrivals that money is drying up.”

Flowers said groups are looking to raise private donations or lay people off. “So that’s a huge concern to be able to keep doors open,” she said.

Most of the people who are lucky enough to be resettled, at least in Texas, are coming with special visas from Afghanistan, like Assadi.

Flowers said the U.S. is hardly letting in refugees from countries like Syria, where people are dying. According to State Department figures, the country has let in only 11 Syrians this year

"When we look back on history we are going to ask ourselves, ‘Why did we not do anything?'" she said. "Were we afraid? I mean, what are we afraid of? Why are we not supporting these fellow human beings?’”

Assadi said he knows he’s lucky and that he’s looking forward to making a new life in Austin.

“Everyone is saying the U.S. is a country of opportunities,” he said. “So yeah, I hope in the future I can make something for my family.”

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