Commissioners nod support for refugee resettlement
Columbia County commissioners voiced support for local refugee resettlement at a meeting last week.
In September, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring that the federal government receive consent from states and counties prior to resettling refugees in those areas.
The executive order was quickly challenged in court, and on Wednesday, Jan. 15, a federal judge issued an injunction halting the order.
While the injunction stands, refugee resettlement agencies have put a hold on gathering consent letters from localities they serve.
Commissioner Margaret Magruder, who invited a representative from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to speak at the commission's Jan. 22 meeting, said she would support sending a letter of consent if it becomes necessary.
Commissioner Alex Tardif agreed adamantly, noting the trauma and conditions that lead to someone becoming a refugee.
Commissioner Henry Heimuller said he "typically would always support times when we're able to reunify families," but couldn't pledge support for the consent letter until finding out more about what specifically was being requested.
Jane Turville of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, one of the three refugee resettlement agencies in the state, said Magruder "has been very supportive, inviting us to come and talk to learn more."
Before the injunction was filed, 42 governors and 100 local elected officials had issued letters of consent, according to a letter Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon President Jan Musgrove-Elfers wrote to Magruder earlier this month.
Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas countieshad issued consent letters prior to the injunction.
"While this decision could be appealed, refugee resettlement will, for the time being, continue as before without expressed consent, in locations determined by the federal government based on family and community connections, affordable housing, and job opportunities, and with existing consultation with receiving communities," Musgrove-Elfers wrote.
Columbia County has received few refugees: only one in 2017 and one in 2019. Statewide, the number of refugee resettlements has dropped in recent years, from 1,780 in 2016 to 589 in 2018. The number of refugees entering the U.S. has fluctuated over the past four decades, but overall dropped from roughly 207,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 2019.
For the current federal fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2019, Trump set the maximum number of refugee admissions to 18,000.
There are nine refugee resettlement agencies nationwide, but cuts to federal funding and the number of refugees being resettled mean that a few of those agencies are expected to shut down in the coming year, Turville said.
Licensed refugee resettlement agencies across the country connect with refugees while they are still in refugee camps waiting to resettle.
"We'll meet them at the airport and pretty much walk with them for the next eight months," Turville said of refugees brought to Oregon.
"Except for family reunification, for the most part, it's not about figuring out where in the state they want to go, it's figuring out where are the resources," Turville explained.
The majority of refugees in Oregon are resettled in Multnomah County, where more resources are available. The two recent Columbia County resettlements, in 2017 and 2019, were both family reunifications, meaning the refugees were joining family members who already lived in the area.
Family reunification has become a larger portion of refugee resettlements since 2017, according to Stephanie Green Weizer of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, another local refugee resettlement agency.
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