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Northwest Arkansas likely will remain eligible to take in refugees despite U.S. State Department changes revealed last month, two advocates said in recent weeks.

The State Department told refugee resettlement agencies it would cut back the number of authorized resettlement sites around the country and focus the cuts on locations that welcome relatively few refugees, the international news outlet Reuters reported in December.

By the numbers

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates:

• More than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution worldwide

• More than 22 million qualify as refugees, meaning they have fled their home and are likely to die if they return

• About 5.5 million of those refugees come from Syria

• And another 2.5 million come from Afghanistan.

Source: unhcr.org

A nonprofit group called Canopy Northwest Arkansas has helped 55 refugees, people fleeing political or religious violence and persecution around the world, settle into the area since it got government approval a little more than a year ago.

Emily Linn, resettlement director for Canopy, said the group expects to stay in business based on guidance from the State Department and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The service is a national nonprofit group working with the government to place refugees with groups such as Canopy. Nina Zelic, the Lutheran service's director of refugee services, said the changes' impact is unclear but agreed Arkansas shouldn't be affected.

"Thankfully, the State Department and our partners at LIRS remain committed to this community in Northwest Arkansas," Linn said. "They have seen the way that our refugee families have thrived here in their first year thanks to the support of the community around them, and they want to see that continue."

More than 20 million people in the world are refugees who can't safely stay in or return to their home countries, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The agency says the yearslong civil war in Syria, continued fighting in Afghanistan and other conflicts have displaced more people than at any point in recorded history.

President Donald Trump's administration has cut refugee admissions to the United States as part of a broader push to limit immigration. Trump and other officials point to concerns terrorists and other combatants from those conflicts might try to infiltrate the refugee system. Refugees typically go through years of interviews and background screenings by the U.N., U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

The administration recently tightened security requirements for refugees from several countries. In November, the government ended a program reuniting refugee children from Central America with parents who legally immigrated to the U.S.

It set a ceiling of 45,000 refugees to be admitted in the fiscal year that began in October, about half as many as in former President Barack Obama's final year in office. Based on admissions in October and November, the country will accept about 19,000 in the fiscal year rather than 45,000, which would be the lowest number in decades, according to State Department data.

Canopy hopes to resettle 75 people in its second year of operation, but hasn't received anyone for several months because of the slowed pace of admissions, Linn said.

"This is definitely a really big and really disheartening and unsettling move," she said, referring to the State Department's plans.

Third District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, whose district includes Canopy's service area, wrote a letter with two other Arkansas members of Congress in late 2016 to the Obama administration opposing the settlement of refugees here and calling for more stringent checks. Womack hasn't returned multiple requests by phone and email over the past several weeks seeking comment on the recent changes.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, last year proposed limiting refugees to 50,000 a year, saying the figure would be closer to the country's historical average. State Department figures show the average number admitted each year between 1975 and 2017 is about 80,000. Cotton's office didn't answer a request for comment last week.

Zelic called the current rate of refugee acceptance unacceptable in the face of global conflict. She urged the government to commit more resources and officers overseas to speed up the interview and vetting process.

"We need to take real leadership on protection for refugees, and we're not right now," she said. "There's a huge commitment to welcome the stranger. There's just not the refugees to welcome."

Most of Canopy's arrivals settled in Fayetteville, where volunteers and staff members helped them enroll children in school, attend English classes and find work.

Charlie Collins, a Republican state representative from Fayetteville, said he supported the arrival of immigrants who followed the rules and went through the system. But he also supports Cotton's and Trump's push to reform the immigration system as a whole with a skill scoring system rather than first-come, first-served.

Collins said he believes the approach would prevent people from feeling like too many refugees or other immigrants are arriving.

NW News on 01/07/2018

Print Headline: Groups expect more refugees in region

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