The U.S. government has been sending fewer Iraqis to Michigan because of its struggling economy, though some expect the refugees will make their way here anyway, costing the cash-strapped state more in the long run.
Michigan is one of the nation's top destinations for Iraqi refugees, having received about 3,000 of the 13,823 Iraqi refugees allowed into the country between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, based on U.S.. State Department figures obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday. Now the state only can take refugees who have a close relative such as a parent, child or sibling in the state.
The State Department's policy, which changed in late June from one that allowed entry to those with cousins and friends in the state, is expected to cut initial resettlement in Michigan by a third.
State refugee coordinator Al Horn said he expects the shift to show up in resettlement numbers for September as the government processes the final family reunification cases approved before the policy change.
"What they did was they took the definition of family and narrowed it — if it's a close relative, you can go (to Michigan)," Horn said. "If they don't have that, they're looking for opportunities in other states. ... If another city or state has better, more prosperous economic and job prospects, the refugee would be able to go there and build a life."
But Horn and others say many who resettle elsewhere are expected eventually to make their way to the Detroit area, lured by the area's large Middle Eastern population as well as its social and cultural networks. In that case, State Department money for refugees and agencies would still flow to the state where they first resettled.
"If they move here, we have the person who needs the services," Horn said. "We get the same numbers. ... Plus, we don't get the money."
Michigan has had the nation's highest average annual jobless rate since 2006. The seasonally adjusted August jobless rate of 8.9 percent was the highest in the state since late 1992.
The State Department changed its policy after its representatives met earlier this year with nonprofit social service groups and local affiliates of national resettlement agencies. Workers cited strains as they coped with a rapid rise in health screenings, job placements and other services.
Refugee coordinators say they were told the restriction would be revisited next year.
The surge came after the Bush administration streamlined its admissions process under criticism for not doing enough for Iraqis who have fled their country since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Officials recently said 12,118 Iraqi refugees had arrived in the country since Oct. 1, 2007, and they would try to admit at least 17,000 next year.
Still, several agencies preferred a more open resettlement policy even as they acknowledged the increased load. They have boosted staff and are working more with other groups.
A State Department spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a policy, said the decision to restrict eligibility was made with support from refugee agencies in an effort to ease burdens on both the front-line workers as well as the overall community.
He said that while officials cannot force refugees to stay somewhere, the payments don't transfer because the department encourages people to live throughout the country.
Local refugee coordinators say they shared their concerns about refugees who eventually resettle in the Detroit area.
"I even told them, they are going to come back here no matter what," said Rafat Ita, senior refugee specialist with Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
Ita said one of his clients is a mother of three whose husband was killed by "friendly fire" by the U.S. Army. Rawaa Bahoo, 28, was sent to Atlanta in July but now lives with her brother-in-law in the Detroit area.
"Here's this single mom, she doesn't have a clue of the system in the U.S.," Ita said. "Her brother-in-law drove down to get her, and she spent only one night there. She lost her benefits but she's here."
Dia Behnam, speaking through an interpreter, said his sister-in-law was upset she couldn't come first to Detroit. He is her only family in the U.S. and pays her bills while she seeks assistance from the state of Michigan.
Sister Beth Murphy of the Archdiocese of Detroit said she understands all sides of the issue but also supports the State Department's decision. Her agency resettled about 340 Iraqi refugees in 2007, and expects it will exceed 1,000 this year.
"It's not a capacity issue for us," she said. "But our concern is the capacity of the economy in southeast Michigan to easily absorb the refugees who are coming."
Both Murphy and Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, said one major challenge for refugees is transportation. Cars are hard to afford but vital in an area without a regional system of light rail and commuter trains.
Kassab said his group is developing a program for refugees to buy cars with long-term loans. But the organization offers many forms of humanitarian aid, such as housing and job assistance.
"When they come to Detroit, even if they cannot work for (General Motors Corp.), our people own businesses. We can connect them with community members."