Now more than ever, refugee resettlement agencies are providing essential services to refugees and also to a number of other community members, to help protect everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, the Fiscal Policy Institute showed how refugee resettlement agencies are anchor institutions in their communities, providing services for some of the most vulnerable community members, jobs for local residents, and a productive use for buildings that in some cases might otherwise be vacant. The importance that refugee resettlement agencies have to local communities is highlighted further due to the COVID-19 pandemic as these agencies give crucial help in applying for unemployment benefits, providing food and other necessities, or translating COVID-19 related information and help all community member regardless of status or lack of funding.

Refugee Resettlement Agencies Are Providing Essential Services to Local Community Members

The pandemic has caused widespread fear and health concerns as well as economic hardships for many across the United States. On top of these challenges, immigrants are met with an anti-immigrant political climate that causes fear and anxiety.

Many of the refugee resettlement agencies in New York have been helping clients understand which benefits they qualify for, and have helped them apply. The Center in Utica has created videos to explain to non-English speaking individuals how to file for unemployment insurance, with their videos receiving thousands of views. In many communities, and for many of the less commonly spoken languages, refugee resettlement agencies play a really big role in helping a wide range of non-English speakers navigate the public benefit and the public health systems.Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo has helped medical providers by providing translation services for them. Refugee resettlement agencies are also helping to fill essential jobs by connecting recently unemployed refugees with essential employers.

Refugee resettlement agencies are also promoting the health and safety of all New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to keep everyone safe, refugee resettlement agencies have been translating COVID-related information into a variety of languages such as Burmese, Karen and Arabic. The Center in Utica has even provided messages in different languages for billboards across the city to remind immigrants to wear masks and follow the health safety procedures. This agency has also shared these resources with their local police department so that they can more easily communicate with non-English speaking community members about COVID requirements.

Catholic Charities of Onondaga County released videos in 13 languages, that discussed the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, what COVID-19 is, how to prevent it and what to do if you don’t feel well. They also did a second video on what a stay-at-home order is and means. The Catholic Family Center in Rochester created pictures and posters and delivered them to the homes of their clients to ensure that they understand the COVID-19 related information. The Center in Utica utilized Facebook live to discuss in different languages what Reopen NY means. Staff at these agencies are in constant and daily communication with clients in their native languages to ensure they understand state executive orders and vital public health information.

Refugee resettlement agencies have also been delivering supplies such as food, laundry detergent, phone cards and other necessities to the homes of community members who have been affected by COVID-19. Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New York has food pop-ups for emergency food assistance and delivers food to the disabled and elderly.

Refugee resettlement agencies are working with and are in constant communication with other local community organizations, medical professionals, the county, and the health department to discuss strategies to ensure that everyone in the community remains safe. These agencies consult with medical providers and others about how to communicate with non-English speaking communities about COVID and how to access health care to ensure the safety of all New Yorkers. Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo performs outreach in 29 languages to promote the health and safety of all.

Refugees themselves have also been giving back to the community. In Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, refugees have been making masks for community members and also been helping to deliver items to those who are observing Ramadan or those who are low-income and need supplies.

Refugee Resettlement Agencies Are Helping All Community Members Despite a Lack of Funding

Although refugee resettlement agencies are short of funds, they have not turned away anyone who needs services in their community, whether or not they fall into categories for which the agencies will receive financial support.

Refugee resettlement agencies are helping individuals who are excluded from federal relief programs, such as undocumented immigrants, asylees, recently arrived refugees, and mixed-status families, although they do not receive funding to provide services to these individuals in the community. They have emergency cash distribution programs for those excluded from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and are providing food assistance for those not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It is important to note that the undocumented population may be fearful to reach out for help, especially during these times due to the anti-immigrant climate or for fear of deportation. But they are turning to these trusted organizations for the help that they need.

Refugee Resettlement Agencies Should Be Adequately Funded 

Refugee resettlement agencies have seen a decrease in their funding as the federal administration has continuously decreased the number of refugees admitted into the United States. Although the Fiscal Policy Institute and its allies in the New York for Refugees Coalition were advocating for funds to the New York State Enhanced Services to Refugees Program (NYSESRP) to be increased to $5 million this year,  from $2 million over the past two years, instead the budget was cut in half to just to $1 million. Although the funding has decreased, the demand for their services has not. In fact, the demand for their services has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As the number of refugees, immigrants and asylees who are looking for assistance is rising, case management funding is not sustainable. These agencies have also not seen reimbursement for any of their translation services provided to the greater community and most of their work has been considered pro-bono.

These agencies need a funding stream that expands who they can help and what services that they can provide, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when their services are in high demand. It’s time for New York State to support these agencies who ensure the safety and well-being of all New Yorkers. Federal aid to New York has a critical role to play, and so does potential state borrowing from the Federal Reserve Bank, but a crucial element of any long-term plan will be to fix our tax structure so that wealthy New Yorkers pay their fair share.  New York State needs to generate a larger amount of revenue so that essential programs, such as the ones provided by refugee resettlement agencies, do not see cuts to funding and so that New Yorkers can continue to receive the services that they need.

By: Cyierra Roldan