President Trump's travel ban stalled the hopes of thousands of refugees overseas, and now it's taking something crucial from workers who help the world's most vulnerable people.
Resettlement agencies in the Philadelphia region have laid off staff and left positions empty as the flow of refugees slows to a trickle. One organization cut half of its specialized staff, and another has asked senior employees to take unpaid time off.
"It's a tortuous situation," said Margaret O'Sullivan, executive director of the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. "We're all waiting to see which way this is going to go."
This job jeopardy is an emerging consequence of a ban enacted in January by presidential order and fought in court ever since. The ensuing rulings, appeals, and interpretations have created a churn of changing circumstances over who may or may not be allowed into the country.
At least until it hears arguments in the case in October, the Supreme Court has allowed sweeping restrictions on refugees, barring travel by those who have no close family in the United States. And the service-and-resettlement agencies, which contract with the federal government to help refugees build new lives, don't get paid in advance.
"We're struggling," said Peter Gottemoller, director of Pennsylvania refugee programs for Bethany Christian Services.
Bethany has laid off more than half of its 20-person resettlement staff in offices in Allentown and Lancaster and in Montgomery County, "and there probably will be other layoffs coming down," he said, "because we're not going to get in the expected number of folks."
The 17 or 18 refugees expected every month in each of the Philadelphia and Allentown offices has slowed to a handful.
Another challenge is that the work itself — guiding newcomers through the maze of requirements and regulations so they can become contributing, taxpaying residents — is delicate, requiring staffers to be culturally humble and artful in finding solutions. People develop expertise over years, and when they're laid off, that knowledge departs with them. It's not a profession where hiring someone off the street will do.
The United Nations estimates that there are 66 million displaced people in the world. Of those, nearly 23 million are refugees, forced not only from their homes but also from their countries. Having often fled war or genocide, they become eligible to enter the U.S. only after extensive vetting. For now, though, those with no close family in this country remain barred.
As a result, the resettlement arm of Catholic Charities of Harrisburg won't fill two part-time positions, and has shifted some staffers to new roles. HIAS PA, which provides legal-and-support services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers of all backgrounds, has so far kept its staff intact, though jobs have been reoriented to meet changing needs.
The Nationalities Service Center, known as the largest, most comprehensive service provider in the Philadelphia region, has halted plans to fill five open positions and laid off two people.
"So, minus seven," O'Sullivan said. That leaves 13 workers in the refugee programs.
Members of the senior management team have been asked to voluntarily reduce their workweek to four days.
That's fewer people dedicated to assisting refugees who in some cases have been tortured or terrorized, often having fled for their lives with only the clothes on their backs.
"They've gone through often horrible circumstances to come to our door," O'Sullivan said. "It's what makes our country great, that we say we'll be part of a global solution. Every administration has been a big fan. We've never had a situation where it was called into question in such a manner."