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Unpacking the U.S. refugee price tag

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The U.S. has promised to resettle more refugees next year, increasing the cap on refugees for fiscal 2016 and 2017, when the limit will hit 100,000. That includes the 10,000 Syrian refugees the White House has already said the U.S. will take in.  Of course, money has to be allocated for refugee resettlement — a process  that starts even before a refugee sets foot in the U.S., with a medical check-up.

“For example, TB [tuberculosis] is checked for,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, a nonprofit known as an intergovernmental organization that helps resettle refugees. 

Doyle said once the health check is done, refugees receive cultural orientation. They’re told life in the U.S. may not be quite what they’ve imagined.

“You may have seen a lot about it in the movies,” he said they’re told, “but it’s not quite like that.”   

One refugee organization, Church World Service, even has a model of an American home. A lot of attention is paid to the bathroom and kitchen.

“They can play with a stove and see about the knobs, microwaves,” said Church World Service spokesman Will Haney. “We have sample airline seats as well, so people can practice what is it like to be in an airline seat.”

The U.S. government gives these groups a lump sum to cover those health screenings and the cultural orientation. But it isn’t divided up per refugee, and varies from group to group. 

It’s different once a refugee arrives in the U.S.  The State Department gives nonprofits $1,975 per refugee for expenses. Some of that goes toward administrative overhead. But most of the money goes to the refugee, for things like food, an apartment, furniture and clothes.

“And all of this has to be covered for at least a month, and sometimes more. Usually more,” said Lavinia Limón, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Limón said if the State Department money runs out before the refugee finds a job, the nonprofit turns to the community — churches and former refugees. The goal is to get the refugees settled in, with a job, in three to six months, she said. 

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