Refugee resettlement agencies look ahead to a busy year, but prepare for potential changes

Feb. 5, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

Poe Dee
Dee is originally from Burma, so he said he feels like he can help people who may be going through the same process as he did when he first came to the U.S. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

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People shopped in a big room in Lincoln’s Catholic Social Services building. The aisles of rice, yogurt and baby food are reminiscent of a grocery store. The food and supplies set up in this room and the one neighboring it are meant for refugees coming to Nebraska. Refugee Resettlement Director Poe stood in the room with the shoppers.

“I was a refugee myself and kind of know the process about like, resettlement,” he said.

Dee said he and his team have been especially busy this year—and even had to increase staff size. Last year he said they welcomed around 123 new arrivals, but his office in south Lincoln expects to resettle about 200 this year.

But since it’s also an election year, they have to be prepared for any potential upcoming changes that would come along with a different president.

“It depends on the president decision, you know, sometimes if they don’t want to bring a lot of refugees, then we don’t have work to do. But this year, we have a lot of work to do. And that’s why we had to bring more staff,” he said. “But it could be temporary.”

Under the Biden administration, Nebraska has seen some of the largest numbers of new arrivals in its history. But it was the stark opposite under the Trump administration, that’s according to the executive director of Immigrant Legal Center + Refugee Empowerment Center Erik Omar.

“We got a pretty good feel for what the outcome on either side will be to the refugee resettlement program,” he said.

With former president Donald Trump as the Republican front runner predicted to be up against incumbent President Joe Biden, Nebraska’s refugee resettlement agencies are staying on their toes. When Trump was in office, he decreased the annual ceiling for refugee arrivals to the U.S. from 30,000 to 18,000. Biden drastically increased that to 125,000.

Omar said his team expects 800 new arrivals in 2024, compared to last year’s 350.

Nebraska will continue to see new arrivals from Ukraine and Afghanistan. But many others are also coming as humanitarian parolees—a temporary legal status—from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. If that status changes under a different administration, Omar said his staff will have to shift a major focus on to additional immigration legal services. But his team is also planning to spend their time on another population of new arrivals: unaccompanied minors.

“Once those children arrive in Nebraska, they do not receive the same type of support that a refugee would receive through the standard refugee resettlement programs,” he said. “In Nebraska, we’ve seen an uptick in unaccompanied children and immigrant children arriving to our state.”

Historically, Nebraska would receive around 300 unaccompanied children. Now, Omar said, they see closer to 1,000.

“Our goal this year is to serve as many of those 1,000 kids that we anticipate come into Nebraska,” Omar added.

As far as serving adult new arrivals, refugee resettlement organizations said their largest challenges in Nebraska this year include transportation, finding jobs and rent costs.

Data shows Midwestern metros has seen faster rent increases than any other region in the past six months. And on top of that, some employers are hesitant to offer jobs to refugees who may not speak English. Poe Dee said he hopes to address that obstacle this year.

“That is the area that we want to accomplish, you know, making relationships with more businesses, local businesses,” he said. “So refugees are not becoming jobless and so they will have more job opportunities in the future.”

Matt Martin, the system vice president of refugee programs at Lutheran Family Services, said Lincoln is expected to outpace the Omaha area in refugee arrivals this year.

He clarified even though agencies like his may face an unknown future as far as presidential decisions go, it’s really the refugees who face the most unknowns.

“For many of these people that have come under different statuses, humanitarian parole or all the Ukrainians and Afghans and many of the more recent arrivals, they come under a temporary status, which makes it more challenging because it means that they don’t know what their future looks like,” Martin said.

One thing is for sure, according to these resettlement agencies, they are ready to serve as many refugees and new arrivals as they can—with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.

“Whether it is cultural, or financial or in any other community way, [refugees] really have added a tremendous benefit for us and in Nebraska. And we’re just happy that Nebraska has been such a welcoming place for so many people,” Martin said.

According to the Immigration Research Initiative, Nebraska leads the country in the number of refugee arrivals per capita over the past ten years. Erik Omar with Immigrant Legal Center plus Refugee Empowerment Center credits this to low unemployment rates, good public school systems and welcoming communities.

Refugee resettlement agencies said some of the best ways to help welcome new arrivals is through housing supply donations, volunteering and even something as simple as a smile and a wave.