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Michigan on track to receive lowest number of refugees in years

A map of cities where refugees have arrived
UNHCR Refugee Project


Michigan has seen just 247 refugee arrivals since October 2020, a much lower number than in previous years.

According to data collected by the Refugee Processing Center, as of July 31, the most people who resettled in the state came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dozen more came on a Special Immigration Visa, a program for those who worked with the U.S. armed forces, like an interpreter from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Related: Michigan agencies prepare for potential influx of Afghan refugees

The fiscal year ends in September, so the data is not yet complete. The monthly breakdown shows arrivals began to pick up in the summer. This data show arrivals to the state — it does not count people who later move to Michigan.

The pandemic closed embassies in the spring of 2020 and caused delays for both refugees and immigrants. Michigan currently is seventh among states with the highest number of arrivals. California, Texas, and New York have the most new arrivals, with Kentucky very closely following as fourth.

Shrina Eadeh is the director of Resettlement Services at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. She says the organization has helped resettle over 43 people since October 2020. They expect to more people to come in September, heading towards their approved capacity of 120 people, she said.

"For 2022 fiscal year due to the change in refugee resettlement policy at the federal level and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, we are expecting to resettle over 500 refugees and SIVs," she wrote.

Michigan has seen a drop in refugee arrivals in recent years.

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center managing attorney Ruby Robinson explained the recent trend downwards is largely due to the former President Donald Trump’s administration slashing the ceiling number of refugees allowed into the U.S. For example: In 2010, the ceiling number of refugees was 80,000. In 2020, it hit a low of 18,000. 

There was also the travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries in 2017, which included Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and temporarily Iraq.

"Every refugee resettlement agency, and accordingly, every state is going to be receiving proportionately smaller numbers of refugees arriving," Robinson explained.

“The United States is generous in some ways, but in other ways, is not very generous in terms of how many refugees it could resettle, but is not,” Robinson said. 

President Joe Biden is attempting to reverse the trend by setting the cap at 62,500 for this current fiscal year. He has been criticized by the International Rescue Committee in April for not setting the cap sooner.

“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year. We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years,” he said in a May news release

Biden has plans to set a future cap at 125,000.  

Recently, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Michigan departments and agencies are preparing to support the arrival of Afghans as they await word from the U.S. State Department. Afghanistan has recently been taken over by the Taliban.

Since the 2009-2010 year, Michigan has seen over 500 refugees from Afghanistan. California and Virginia are known to have large Afghan communities.

A Whitmer spokesperson said people would have to have a connection to the state to qualify for a Special Immigration Visa. (People on SIV are not included in the same data as refugees.)

“We have a rich history of multiculturalism — from the Dutch who settled in the West, to the Finns who mined the North, to the Middle-Easterners who made Dearborn a flourishing center for Arab culture, and countless others who make us who we are,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Imad Hamad is the executive director of the American Human Rights Council. In the 90s during the Gulf War, he worked as a liaison and interpreter in Michigan during an influx of Iraqi arrivals. Over the past decade, a little over half of those resettled to Michigan are people from Iraq - many of whom have settled in Southeast Michigan.

Hamad said he had a “hunch” many Afghans may also seek Michigan as a state to resettle. He said Michigan is a welcoming place, supported by Whitmer's recent statement, and that Wayne County in particular has the experience.

"People need to be reminded that the refugee crisis is a universal crisis," he said. "No one wants to be a refugee. People are simply seeking a safe place where they can live with their kids in peace and prosperity."

According to the UN Refugee Agency in 2020, Grand Rapids in West Michigan has taken in the most arrivals among the state’s cities. Many are coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, both of which have seen over three thousand arrivals to the state in total since 2010.

"Michigan, as a state, has supported refugees and immigrants...it can always be more generous and more supportive. Given the pandemic, it just is taking more time to do all this. And so (when) there are more resources, then fewer people are stuck in limbo," Robinson said. 

Learn more about Michigan's resettlement agencies here.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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