By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has told refugee agencies it will sharply pare back the number of offices across the country authorized to resettle people in 2018 as President Donald Trump cuts the number of refugees allowed into the United States.
The announcement was made at a Dec. 1 meeting in Washington with State Department officials and representatives from nine major refugee agencies, several executives of the agencies said.
Advocates said the decision is likely to lead to the closure of dozens of resettlement offices around the country, potentially leaving some refugees without access to services that help them integrate into American life. Several state refugee coordinators said they had also been made aware of the closures.
Refugee resettlement in the United States is handled by nine non-profit agencies that receive funding from the federal government for some of their refugee work. They partner with, or oversee, hundreds of local offices in nearly every state that help new arrivals with basic tasks like enrolling children in school, arranging doctors' visits and applying for Social Security cards and other documents.
Though the agencies are independent, they must get government approval for where they will resettle new refugees.
Aid workers and state officials involved in refugee resettlement said the agencies were informed by the State Department in the Dec. 1 meeting that offices expected to handle fewer than 100 refugees in fiscal year 2018 will no longer be authorized to resettle new arrivals, which means many of them will have to close. There are about 300 resettlement offices spread across 49 states, and advocates estimate several dozen are at risk, though shuttering plans will not be finalized until next year.
The Trump administration has said it wants refugees to assimilate quickly, both to promote national security and so that they can become self-sufficient.
Refugee advocates say the closure of local offices will undermine that goal. They say the offices play a crucial role in helping newcomers traumatized from having fled conflict or persecution. Even if no new refugees are resettled by the offices they still have an obligation to help those already here, they say.
If refugees lose access to "services to help them navigate the processes of registering for school, and English classes and finding a job, that will mean that it will take longer for them to navigate life in the United States and contribute to our economy," said Robert Carey, who directed the Office of Refugee Resettlement under former President Barack Obama.
A State Department official confirmed the Dec. 1 meeting and said the agency is looking to "reduce costs and simplify management structures to help the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program run in a way that is fiscally responsible and sustainable."
Some conservative groups that favor lower immigration said they would welcome curbs on the agencies' activities.
"These organizations have to adapt when their services are no longer needed as much," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. "There is no reason to keep funneling money to them."
Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who formerly worked in refugee resettlement, said that costs need to be balanced against benefits. "It is unclear to me if the assimilation gains are great enough to justify the extra expense" of funding the smaller agencies, he said.
'WE'VE LOST A REALLY VALUABLE PARTNER'
The nine agencies are now trying to coordinate closures so that they can maintain at least one resettlement agency in as many states as possible, several agency executives said.
"We're hoping that they (the State Department) only close sites where there is possible duplication," said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, one of the nine agencies. "This is going to have to be a negotiation and a process."
Since taking office in January, Trump has moved to sharply reduce refugee admissions to the United States, because of national security concerns and a belief that money could be better spent resettling people closer to their original homes.
Soon after taking office, he slashed the 2017 U.S. refugee cap to 50,000 from the 110,000 ceiling set by Obama. In September, he announced a cap of 45,000 for 2018, the lowest number since the modern U.S. refugee program was established in 1980.
The resettlement office in Chattanooga, Tennessee is at risk of shutting down, because it is only projected to receive about 85 refugees, said Holly Johnson, the state's refugee coordinator.
"Small doesn't necessarily mean weak or subpar," Johnson said. "They spend more time with folks, they have really well-established connections to the community, so people feel welcomed, which really helps."
Until this year, Idaho had four resettlement offices - three in Boise and one in Twin Falls, said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, a non-profit which administers resettlement in the state. Earlier this year one of the sites in Boise shut down, he said.
"It was disruptive, and we've lost a really valuable partner and we've lost some capacity to do the job," he said.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)