Refugee arrivals to Minnesota could quadruple this year

A man organizes a storage room.
John Meyers, the director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota shows a small room full of items to offer families settling into the area Tuesday, Nov. 30 in Rochester, Minn.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News | 2021

Some are criticizing the Biden administration for refusing to raise the cap on how many refugees the country accepts, and for admitting far fewer than that cap allows. The United States can resettle 125,000 people this fiscal year, which began on Saturday. Last year, it used less than a fifth of its slots.

To understand what this means for Minnesota, All Things Considered host Tom Crann interviewed Rachele King on the program Thursday. King is the state's refugee coordinator.

To hear their conversation, click play on the audio player above or read a transcript of it below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What do you think of that refugee cap of 125,000 people? Do you think that, that is a reasonable number, an achievable number? Should it be higher or lower?

Well, actually, that number is pretty consistent if you look at the history of resettlement in our country, dating back to the formalized process in 1980. The average over time is about 90,000 to 100,000, so these last two years are really just getting us back to that.

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While they have set that number at 125,000 for this year. I think there is an expectation that sort of planning or functional number is more like 65,000, because there's a lot of work to do to be able to build back up to that level of arrivals.

Though the cap remains steady this year, it's about eight times higher than it was under the Trump administration. I'm wondering, are resettlement agencies still building back up? How did the Trump years affect them?

Those years and the previous administration were really hard years for resettlement agencies, and I would say for Minnesota as well. People who arrive with refugee status bring a lot of assets to our state, and so we were not afforded the opportunity to welcome people in the numbers that we had in the past. And because of that, resettlement agencies have really needed to build back up.

What can you tell us about how many people resettled in Minnesota last year?

So in the last fiscal year that just ended, there were about 500 or so people who arrived to Minnesota through that traditional refugee admissions program. One of the things that we saw is a real diversity in where people were coming from. So of those 500 people, there were probably 15 or 16 different nationalities, and that includes people who are coming from the African continent, from Europe, from Central and South America, as well as people coming from the Middle East and Asia.

What do you expect for this year?

We are planning — through the traditional refugee admissions program — really to see building back to what we had seen, you know, over our history, which is closer to about 2,000 arrivals per year to the state. And the people who will arrive here will continue to be very diverse.

Are resettlement agencies prepared for numbers like that?

Yes, I think that they are prepared. Minnesota has a very rich tradition of welcoming people with refugee status here, and that infrastructure remains. So I think that more than building from the ground up, it is really just shoring up that infrastructure that already exists. And in the past year, we’ve already used that infrastructure and that expertise to welcome people, not through the U.S. refugee admissions program, but through other programs, such as the evacuation of Afghans.

And people have really stepped up in new and different ways — both the nonprofit sector, as well as just Minnesotans who are standing up to walk beside newcomers. I think that's a real asset that will strengthen the program as we move forward.