With its enormous and vibrant Arab community, Detroit has long been a favored destination for Iraqi refugees. But as they began to arrive in the United States in record numbers, fears that they would overwhelm the city's resettlement services during rough economic times prompted a tough decision by the State Department: Iraqis who want to settle in the Detroit metropolitan area are being sent to other U.S. cities unless they have close family members in the city.
The policy has been in place since July. But as the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States is due to rise further—from a record 13,755 in fiscal 2008 to a target of 17,000 in 2009—the directive will affect an increasing number of families hoping to join the more than 100,000 other Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans in the city.
The State Department's move is part of a tough balancing act. Iraqi refugees have only recently been admitted in large numbers. State accepted only 735 of them from 2003 until 2006—a mere 0.35 percent of all refugees admitted in those years. The new flood of arrivals all need help to settle in their new homes, but officials want to prevent their needs from overwhelming resettlement services during a time of recession.
"If you have a discrepancy—if you have more people but you have no more money—how are you going to serve those people?" says Belmin Pinjic, director of refugee services at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. "You use the resources available from within a community, but those resources are limited, as well."
Officials at the State Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say that the directive was issued following requests from resettlement workers themselves.
But the policy won't actually lessen the pressure on Michigan compared with last year, when 2,527 Iraqi refugees arrived. When the policy was changed in early July, officials estimated it would mean an approximate 30 percent decrease in the number of Iraqi refugees settling in Detroit. But since then, the State Department boosted its goal of Iraqi refugee admissions by 5,000 people.
If the same proportion of Iraqi refugees this year has close relatives as last year, therefore, Detroit will likely field the same number of Iraqi refugees as before, says Al Horn, Michigan's state refugee coordinator.
Detroit is particularly attractive to Chaldeans, or Iraqi Catholics, many of whom are fleeing religious persecution in Iraq. The city claims the largest Chaldean community outside of the Middle East, offering six Chaldean churches and even a Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. And with an estimated 120,000 Chaldeans in the city, it's likely that a Chaldean refugee coming to the United States will know someone in Detroit. Now, however, only Chaldeans with immediate family members will be resettled there.
That worries some advocates, who emphasize the importance of community to newly resettled refugees.
"Something the State Department doesn't know, and at least has overlooked, is the humanitarian side," says Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America. "These people . . . are coming to Detroit to be with their friends and relatives after a long separation. And I don't think we should be depriving them of this."
Some will seek it anyway. Kassab says he already knows of more than 100 Chaldean refugees who came to Detroit after having been settled elsewhere because of the directive. One was an Iraqi widow who came to the United States with her three small children to rejoin her brother-in-law in Detroit. She was sent to Atlanta. Afraid, alone, and unable to communicate in English, she called her brother-in-law and asked him to come get her. She now lives in Detroit.
Refugees are allowed to move anywhere they would like, but it makes it harder for resettlement agencies to help them. And if they leave without first going through a process of informing their old and new resettlement offices, which must happen within their first 30 days, their benefits may not transfer with them.
Meanwhile, some families seem to have been surprised by their arrival in a city that wasn't Detroit. One family of five that wanted to go to Michigan was sent, instead, to New Haven, Conn. "They were surprised," says Chris George, director of New Haven's Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. "They told us that they didn't know they were coming to Connecticut. They thought, until the very last minute, that they were coming to Detroit."
If they'd known, they said, they would have asked to go to San Diego, where they had other relatives. And that's where they went. It wasted time and effort for everyone, George says, not least of all the family, which had to pay airfare for five to San Diego.
Not all refugees who want to settle in Detroit and cannot are turned away. One exception made is for followers of small religious minorities like the Sabaean Mandeans, an ancient religious sect that reveres John the Baptist and claims less than 100,000 adherents worldwide, including fewer than 5,000 in Iraq. There is a vibrant Sabaean Mandean community in Detroit.
Resettlement offices emphasize that, although they would like to take in far more refugees than they do, they can't provide adequate services for each one if the amount of resources they have stays the same.
But advocates like Kassab insist that community networks are strong enough to take care of the refugees. "Is it better for you to be with a community and poor services, or better services and no community?" George asks. "That's the issue."