Refugees find a welcoming home in Minnesota: State, federal actions would limit numbers allowed to settle here
ST. PAUL — In 2014, Minnesota eagerly welcomed the refugee family from Malaysia.
"I love it here. Every need of a human being is satisfied here," said Ravindran Sivasundaram, as he sat with his wife and three boys at his kitchen table in Burnsville.
They arrived and began building the better life they dreamed about.
But today, they might not be allowed in. America has shrunk the flow of incoming refugees—a move likely to be felt in Minnesota.
Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide, according to the U.S. Census and refugee-support agencies. With 2 percent of the nation's population, Minnesota has 13 percent of its refugees.
The cutback in the refugee inflow has shaken Minnesota's network of sponsoring agencies.
They say the more refugees, the better. They argue that refugees boost the economy, diversify our state and eventually pay back the costs of their resettlement.
Yet, refugees cost an estimated $107,000 each in food aid, medical expenses and other services, according to one researcher. Communities have no control over the in-flow of refugees, yet they must share the cost of supporting them. And residents often don't speak out or even ask questions of the process for fear of being called racists, according to Kim Crockett, vice president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Golden Valley.
"No one ever asks taxpayers: 'Do you want to support this?' " she said. "When we question this, we are told that is mean-spirited, bigoted and xenophobic."
Shortly after his inauguration last January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring all refugees for four months. He later announced the government would reduce the number of incoming refugees to 45,000 for 2018.
That's a 59 percent drop from the fiscal 2017 goal of 110,000 set under the Obama administration.
What exactly is a refugee?
The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who has fled over international borders because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Global conflicts in 2016 forced an "unprecedented" 65.6 million people from their homes in 2016. Unlike undocumented immigrants, refugees have been invited into the U.S., are vetted by the government, and are guaranteed a place to stay when they arrive.
When refugees arrive, their nonprofit sponsors take care of them for a while — picking them up at the airport, arranging for housing and medical care, and providing legal help.
One such Twin Cities group, New American Services of Catholic Charities, applied to take in 167 refugees last year. "We tell them what we can handle, based on our capacity," said program manager Aimee Barbeau.
After 90 days, the obligation of the sponsoring agencies expires.
Refugees needing help after then must look elsewhere, according to Jane Graupman, director of the International Institute of Minnesota. "We get other funding from other sources, local foundations and national foundations," she said.
Refugees are free to apply for taxpayer-funded government aid, like any other residents. Nonprofit groups often help them apply.
A 2017 Notre Dame study on the economic outlook of refugees said that after 20 years, refugees are more likely than native-born residents to be receiving welfare and food-support payments — and they are also more likely to be employed.
Drawn to Minnesota
Minnesota accepted 3,059 refugees from other countries in 2016, according to the Department of Human Services.
The state doesn't keep track of refugees who arrive in the U.S. and then move to Minnesota, but the federal government does.
Minnesota accepted 4,523 refugees in the two-year period ending Sept. 30, 2015, according to the federal Office of Refugee Settlement. But at the same time, a second wave arrived—3,864 refugees who moved from other states to Minnesota.
Minnesota's secondary migration was larger than all other states combined. Second-place Iowa had 442 refugees moving from other states.
In other words, as soon as they have a choice of where to live, many refugees choose Minnesota.
"Minnesota has been a magnet," said Bob Oehrig, director of Arrive Ministries in Richfield, an agency that handles refugees. He said Minnesota has what refugees want — jobs, good social welfare programs, and plenty of people from their home country.
When refugees concentrate in one area, restaurants and stores spring up, creating a welcoming atmosphere.
"If you are resettled in Boise with no one speaking your language, and no stores with your food, maybe you would seek out your own community," Oehrig said.
He said it's like a chain reaction — refugees attract family and friends, who attract more refugees. "A crowd draws a crowd," he said.
Calvary Church in Roseville sponsors a new family every year. The refugees are eager to work at any job, said the Rev. Vonn Dornbush.
"We have people who drive to Willmar or Austin to work in meatpacking plants. They stay there and work all week, then come home," he said.
"The people we work with want a better life for their families," said Dornbush, "just like my Dutch and German ancestors did."
Overused welcome mat?
But others say that Minnesota's welcome mat is getting trampled.
Minnesota is not hostile to foreigners, note those raising questions about the state's refugee policies. Eight percent of the population is foreign-born, according to the Minnesota Compass, a website that tracks demographic data.
The $107,000 resettlement cost per refugee, according to University of Notre Dame economics professor William Evans, includes the cost of food stamps, English lessons, job training and social services.
After eight years, the average refugee is earning enough and paying enough taxes to start paying back those costs, according to Evans. After 20 years the expenses are reimbursed, plus another $21,000, according to Evans.
But those initial costs are too high, said Crockett of the Center of the American Experiment. "They say we ought to be celebrating this," she said. "Yeah, but what is it costing me?"
The refugee resettlement program is a federal effort, but the federal government "does not compensate Minnesota, or the local school districts, cities or counties, who may find themselves coping with large concentrations of refugees," Crockett says. So when many refugees end up enrolled in Medicaid or assistance programs such as those for housing or transportation or language study, Minnesotans absorb the extra costs.
"Today, voluntary agencies like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities have more say on where refugees are placed than elected officials in Minnesota," Crockett adds. "That's wrong."
Crockett points out that voters never get to decide whether they want to support large numbers of refugees. "If you want to do charitable work, write a check," Crockett said. "Don't use my tax dollars for it."
In St. Cloud, an estimated 1,900 refugees have moved in since 2002. City council member Jeff Johnson—no relation to the Jeff Johnson who's running for governor—floated a plan in October to limit refugee settlement. "We didn't target anyone," he said. "I wanted a moratorium until we could find out how much money is being spent."
The proposal stated, in part: "(T)he overall quality of life for St. Cloud residents will continue to be adversely impaired by excessive demands on local resources if primary resettlement continues."
The council rejected it, but Johnson said it has started a public conversation.
Johnson favors Trump's refugee cutbacks. And he is not surprised that sponsoring agencies support more refugees. "Of course they think it's a good deal. They get about $1,000 apiece," said Johnson.
The International Institute's Graupman confirmed that the refugees each get $950 when they arrive, and the sponsoring agency gets the same amount.
Those federal payments accounted for 42 percent of Arrive Ministries' budget last year, according to director Oehrig.
But the sponsors say they are motivated by sympathy, not money.
"It speaks to Minnesota's compassionate heart for people who are hurting," said Calvary Church's Dornbush.
At home in Minnesota
To refugee Sivasundaram, his home in Burnsville feels like paradise.
"I am so happy here," said Sivasundaram, wearing the reflective vest from his job as a forklift operator. On a recent evening, he rested for a few minutes before going to his night job stocking shelves at a Target store.
His wife, Manchuladevy Ravindran, soon walked in, home from her job as a housekeeper in a nearby motel, and started cooking dinner for her three boys.
Some people would call it a stressful life — but not this family. They compare it with the life they had before.
Until 2006, they lived in Sri Lanka, an island south of India. They were part of an ethnic group called Tamils, which the government often treats like terrorists.
Soldiers rampaged through their village in a raid, slaughtered Sivasundaram's mother, and burned her house down. When he complained to the government, his life was threatened.
The family fled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they remained for eight years. "I did house cleaning, plumbing, cutting grass, driving a taxi," recalled Sivasundaram.
The family remembers, above all, the crime.
"You couldn't use a phone in the street. Someone would take it," said Sivasundaram. "Someone would cut off the ears of old ladies for the earrings."
The boys faced a unique danger. "They would have kidnapped me for the military, or sold me to another country," said Kapilas, his 17-year-old son.
The family made a Minnesota contact through their Jehovah's Witnesses church. As soon as they arrived, neighbors knocked on their front door to welcome them.
The boys had been raised as English-speakers and have assimilated rapidly.
They laugh about the quirks of their new homeland. "I like Chick-Fil-A. The food in Malaysia is healthier, but this is tastier," said Simraj, 16.
Apilas, 13, is fascinated by boneless fish, which he never encountered in Malaysia. "I always ask: Is that fish, or is that steak?" he said.
Kapilas marveled at his new, low-stress life. "We have security and peace. Here, all I have to worry about is studying," he said.
They gathered for a meal at a time necessitated by their hectic schedules — 11 p.m.
In three years, they have saved enough to buy a car, then a house. "There is a great future here for all of us," said the father. Their success is shared by others. Simraj named 10 relatives and friends who have since followed them to America.
At the end of the interview, the father was asked whether he had anything else to say.
He is not fluent in English, so when asked a question, he looks pleadingly at his sons for help.
"No," he said. "Just thank you."