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Legal refugees feel pinch as state assistance declines

SUNDAY, FEB. 13, 2011

Bhutanese refugee Devi Prasai joins a few hundred fellow refugees and advocates in a rally Thursday on the steps of the Washington state Capitol in Olympia. (Associated Press)
Bhutanese refugee Devi Prasai joins a few hundred fellow refugees and advocates in a rally Thursday on the steps of the Washington state Capitol in Olympia. (Associated Press)

Program in jeopardy is path from welfare

OLYMPIA – For 18 years, Devi Prasai lived in a packed refugee camp after fleeing from ethnic tensions in his native Bhutan. Prasai waited for a chance at a better life for himself, his wife and children. It finally came, when the United States agreed to welcome thousands of Bhutanese and Prasai was approved to come to America.

But now in Washington state, he’s struggling to keep a roof over his head.

Prasai’s monthly state cash assistance has decreased from $662 to $561. Rent for the one-bedroom apartment in Kent – where he, his wife and two children live – costs $599 monthly.

“No job,” Prasai said through an interpreter. “Both of us have no English, so we have not found job.”

Prasai is one of thousands of refugees who have resettled in Washington state over the years, with many struggling with a tough job market and decreasing assistance from the state.

And it may get worse.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed eliminating programs that subsidize English classes, job searches and pathways to naturalization. Those proposed cuts also go along with budget reductions to other programs that serve refugees, such as waivers for dental exams.

It’s a drastic change in how this state treats refugees. Historically, Washington has been one of the most welcoming. It’s one of a handful of states that provide significant money to refugee programs, on top of what the federal government provides.

“Historically, Washington state has been very generous in providing dollars,” said Bob Johnson, executive director at the Seattle office of the International Rescue Committee and a veteran in refugee resettlement. But, he said, “Everybody’s got a problem. It’s not like moving (money) around – there’s nothing to move anymore.”

Prasai and Johnson joined hundreds of refugees this past week as they lobbied lawmakers in Olympia in an attempt to stop more proposed cuts. Many carried white poster board signs calling for “equal access to jobs” and proclaiming that refugees are “legal” immigrants.

It’s an uphill fight, though. The state is grappling with a $5 billion deficit for the next two-year budget. Lawmakers are also trying to patch a hole of half a billion dollars in the current budget. The refugee programs are solely funded by state money and not tied to federal mandates – making them easier to cut.

There were “no easy cuts, but they were made out of necessity,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire. “The governor has said many times that this budget doesn’t reflect her values … and unfortunately some programs that affect refugees were impacted.”

Shagren also said that Gregoire had concerns about programs that aid legal immigrants and refugees, but may also be used by illegal immigrants.

“Unfortunately refugees fall victim,” she said.

One of those programs is the Limited English Proficient (LEP) Pathways/Refugee Services Program. Cutting it would save about $10 million in the next two-year budget. In this program, the state provides cash to agencies to provide English classes and job training and searches.

Refugee advocates say this program is critical to keep because it helps refugees come off assistance by finding them jobs.

“We’re able to talk to clients in their own languages,” said Shane Rock, director of refugee services at Jewish Family Services. Rock says that his agency last year helped 167 refugees find a job with wages high enough to “pay rent and get off government assistance.”

Rock said having a refugee system that moves them away from welfare is essential, if the state is to continue with its refugee efforts.

“We don’t want to bring people if they can’t become self-sufficient here,” Rock said.

Refugees who are still dependent on cash assistance will see a 15 percent reduction as of this month. Those reductions to welfare payments ordered by Gregoire will save the state $21 million in this fiscal year and nearly $98 million in the next two-year budget.

So far, lawmakers have partially saved the LEP program. And the Senate and House differ on whether to cut the naturalization program. Cutting it would save about $5 million in the next two-year budget.

“I am concerned that this will change the whole tone of this state. This has been a state that has welcomed people,” Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, one of the legislature’s veteran minority lawmakers.

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