A memorandum by the White House on Tuesday night stated, “The admission of up to 15,000 refugees to the United States during FY 2021 is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”
The United States was once a leader in refugee resettlement. That has drastically changed under Donald Trump’s presidency, cutting down the number of refugees allowed in by 86%.
This creates a labor issue and a slow economy in many cities across the country, including in Erie, Pennsylvania. Although the city has faced years of population loss following a collapse in manufacturing jobs in town, refugees in Erie have opened up small businesses and often fill jobs that don’t require a lot of specific skills or training.
Dylanna Grasinger is the director of the International Institute of Erie/USCRI, which works to resettle refugees and help them rebuild their lives. The following is an edited transcript on their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: I went back and I listened to the interview that you and I did in September of 2018. And the last question we talked about was what refugee resettlement means for Erie and that area, economically. And I have to imagine now that with refugee counts down and the pandemic on top of that, it has an economic effect.
Dylanna Grasinger: It does. So, when we last chatted, we have a small business program that really focuses on stimulating the local economy with refugee-owned businesses. And we really were gaining momentum with that. This administration has definitely been a challenge to immigration and to refugee resettlements, which impacts the local economy and families and lower numbers of arrivals coming in it has really changed how we do business under that program. And definitely how the local economy looks. It’s still part of the city’s strategic approach to grow the city. And, you know, we’re really hoping that something will change and allow refugees to be part of that for sure.
Ryssdal: Do you have a sense — I mean, do you know the numbers off the top of your head about people coming to Erie in say, late Obama years versus, you know, late first-term Trump years?
Grasinger: Yeah. So, in Erie we were upwards of 500 to 600 individuals coming in, in a year. And this past year, I can tell you, we had 18 families, 44 individuals.
Grasinger: Yeah. So big difference.
Ryssdal: Yeah. And that’s, I mean, not to get brass tacks about it here, but that’s, that’s a labor force issue, right? Because they will typically take jobs that maybe not everybody in Erie is willing to do, those kinds of things?
Grasinger: Yeah, correct. So yeah, we’ve got a really strong relationship with a set of employers in town. And yeah, they’ve been hit by this as well, because that is their labor force. And that is how they’ve also looked at strategically growing their business. So, you know, they’ve had to kind of shift models and scramble. And we’re good partners with them. But you know, there’s only so many folks available.
Ryssdal: Let me give you then, just as a last question, two options: President Trump gets reelected to a second term, or President Biden has another look at refugee policy. What do each of those features look like for you and for Erie?
Grasinger: So, I think if the current administration stays in place, it’s going to continue to be a challenge. We know that the president has thrown around the number of 15,000 individuals coming into the country for the year, which is the lowest it’s been, I’m gonna throw out there, ever. And so yeah, that’s going to take a real hit on the local economy. And again, you know, it’s going to take the whole community coming together to figure that out. I think if we see a change in administration and policy around allowing refugees in, that the Erie economy will thrive. Local employers will be able to have their employee base back and we’ll see more small businesses opening, which is definitely what Erie needs.
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