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Marketplace

When an economy needs refugees

Kai Ryssdal and Bennett Purser Sep 19, 2018
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Dylanna Jackson is a director of a resettlement program in Erie. 
Maitham Basha-Agha/Marketplace

The White House said this week it will cut the number of refugees allowed into the country to 30,000 next year from the 45,000-person limit for 2018. That’s a record low for the United States, which worries many local economies that depend on immigrant and refugee labor. Erie, Pennsylvania, is one of those places. The city strategically welcomed and resettled refugees when the population was shrinking and jobs were disappearing.

Dylanna Grasinger is the director of the International Institute of Erie, which works to resettle refugees and help them rebuild their lives. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal met Grasinger during a reporting trip last year and decided to check in with her about the latest news. The following is an edited transcript on their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: We talked a lot actually when we were in Erie a year and a half, two years ago, about the impact that refugees have had on that city. It’s an economic asset to that city, the refugee population, right?

Dylanna Grasinger: Yeah, definitely, I mean, you know, a lot of the strategic planning that’s gone into looking at how the city can grow has been around refugee resettlement and bringing folks in. 

Ryssdal: So what’s happening now that refugees aren’t coming in the numbers they used to come in? 

Grasinger: Yeah, it’s definitely a slower number. I mean, here in Erie, you know, we’ve got landlords that aren’t able to fill houses and employers that are just kind of waiting to see, you know, do they grow a production line? Do they shrink a production line? We can’t keep up with the demand that folks are asking us to because we don’t have the arrivals.

Ryssdal: Can you feel it walking around town? Can you see it?

Grasinger: So Erie is a really great community. It is extremely supportive of what we do. So I think that they’ve really stepped up and have tried to showcase the contributions that refugees are bringing to the city, so there’s that positive feel, but that’s happening because we know the negative side of it. 

Ryssdal: This is also a business model problem for you, right? At the International Institute? 

Grasinger: It is, yeah. Even though we’re a nonprofit, we’re still business, so, you know, we have to figure out how to keep the lights on and people in place.

Ryssdal: Are you laying people off? You cutting hours? What are you doing?

Grasinger: No, you know, we started over a year ago when we thought this might be happening really trying to diversify funding and making sure that we could shore things up. So we’re holding on here, which is good news.

Ryssdal: A word about some of the folks who are there who are using your services. Are they able to reach their families at home? And what sense do you have of sort of the mood that they are in?

Grasinger: Well, what clients tell us is they’re worried. So, you know, it definitely creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety on whether they’ll be reunited with family members. And it gets hard when you have elderly family members who may be sick. You know, you may not see them again. And that’s really where people are at.

Ryssdal: What do you suppose happens in Erie if the refugee numbers are limited even farther?

Grasinger: Well, it’s going to be interesting, because as I said, a lot of the strategic growth is around refugees coming in. And so, if you don’t have those numbers, I think the city is going to have to rethink where is that growth coming from. Because we don’t have other growth areas. The city is going to have to look long and hard at what that means.

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