A surge in children illegally crossing the southwestern U.S. border in recent months may soon have an unexpected impact on refugees living in Nashville.
Last week, President Barack Obama asked Congress for more than $2 billion in emergency funds to help address a growing crisis along the Rio Grande, where more than 52,000 children traveling alone and 40,000 women with children have been apprehended illegally crossing the border since October.
The influx of children — most from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — has strained the resources of the Border Patrol and emergency detention centers set up in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, creating what Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation."
The president's solution would involve redirecting funding already budgeted for refugee programs across the country. Tennessee stands to lose more than $1.6 million of its annual $11 million budget. The cuts would hit programs designed to serve elderly refugees, children in schools and preventive health care for refugees, according to Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for the Tennessee Office of Refugees.
The president's proposal puts refugee advocates in an uncomfortable position, pitting the needs of the population they serve against those of the newly arrived children, some very young, who are reported to have fled their home countries to escape gang activity, violence and poverty. According to some reports, children believed they would be allowed to remain in the United States.
"It's not like I can say, 'Hey don't help them,' because that's not how I feel," said Johnson. "They're an equally deserving population."
But the cuts to refugee programs, if approved, could end programs that help children and the elderly integrate more quickly into their communities, eliminate 58 percent of case managers and affect job placement programs. Tennessee currently has among the highest rates of job placement for refugees in the nation.
The proposed cuts would not affect the financial and medical assistance the United States has long provided to refugees in their early months after arrival.
Tennessee accepted more than 1,600 refugees in the last fiscal year. Most of the refugees arriving in Tennessee come from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Iran. Refugees, by definition, have fled or been forced to leave their countries to escape violence, persecution or natural disaster.
Congress has yet to weigh in on the president's proposal.