A way station for immigrants the world over, New York’s Ellis Island is arguably the truest symbol of American identity. But the island is closed today – along with the Statue of Liberty and all other national monuments, memorials, libraries and parks – all as a result of the ongoing government shutdown.
Here in Texas, the shutdown’s made an immediate impact on incoming immigrants: it has forced the State Department and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to delay the arrival of refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Eritrea, Burma, Bhutan, Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And approximately 10 percent of these immigrants come to Texas.
Traditionally, presidential administrations decide how many refugees are to be admitted during the fiscal year by the first week of October. But a national moratorium on refugees has been extended until October 21 – a date by which the bureau hopes the federal government has reopened. Until then, displaced refugees must remain in their “second countries” – halfway points between their country of origin and destination.
While federal financial assistance to refugees has not been affected, the shutdown of the Social Security Administration makes it impossible for local resettlement agencies to obtain Social Security cards for refugees. Without them, displaced persons cannot access federal employment agencies or public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. According to Erica Schmidt, the Austin-area director for Refugee Services of Texas, food stamps and pantries are the only ways the newly arrived can access food.
She says that five local refugees are currently without any form of public assistance.
“The state that the government is in currently does not allow for that positive start that we historically give to refugees who are being resettled into our country,” Schmidt says. “And so the fear is that we can’t provide what we really need to refugees who have been through so many traumatic experiences.”
Schmidt and others within refugee resettlement community hope the shutdown ends soon.
“To have our own country’s government shut down at the moment and jeopardizing so many families’ needs – basic needs – is disappointing to see,” she says. “And we would like to be able to be a better example for many of these families entering our country right now.”