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'I am desperate:' Refugee says resettling in Atlanta came with struggles

Lautaro Grinspan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

“We are in the field. We’re not sitting at our desk managing cases. We are taking people to doctor’s appointments. We are in their house. We are taking their kids for school enrollment. Yesterday we had staff at the airport at midnight picking people up. It never stops. So yes, sometimes it is hard to get in touch with us,” she said.

Case workers are increasingly swamped.

The refugee program underwent years of cuts and disinvestment under the Trump administration, which characterized refugees as a security threat despite the background checks they are subject to. But now, the refugee program is growing again. In the first six months of the fiscal year, the U.S. has welcomed nearly 50,000 refugees, 1,736 of whom came to Georgia. That’s according to newly published U.S. Department of State data. In contrast, the Trump administration admitted roughly 64,000 over the course of three years.

The program’s expansion is being felt by Catholic Charities, which is struggling to recruit new staffers to meet demand for its services. There are three other refugee resettlement agencies in metro Atlanta, all of whom will be feeling the crunch of the Biden administration’s target of resettling 125,000 refugees this year, the most in three decades.

In February alone, Catholic Charities staff picked up 88 refugees at the airport. According to Russell, a “normal” month brings about 30 new refugees.

“It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “We’re slammed.”


‘A tough pill to swallow’

Briceño Peña says she became concerned about her situation as soon as she arrived in Atlanta, when she discovered that Catholic Charities had signed a lease under her name for a $1,150-a-month apartment she wasn’t sure she would be able to afford once the rent assistance ran out. She also reportedly found the place empty of all but the most basic of furnishings.

Russell says that is normal.

According to her, the agency prefers to furnish apartments gradually with donated items, to earmark more of the cash assistance they receive per refugee to cover rent. Russell says resettlement agencies try to find apartments that are as affordable as possible and in communities with at least some public transportation. Leases may be signed under refugees’ names, and not the nonprofit’s, to avoid establishing a relationship of dependency.


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