Advocates applauded Gov. Phil Murphy’s order to create an Office of New Americans and resume oversight of refugee resettlement. It will aid refugees arriving in New Jersey, often families fleeing war zones, who need housing, clothes, food and guidance on navigating a strange new culture. Sikandar Khan’s agency helps 50 families living in Passaic County and says they’re struggling.
“They need cash in order to buy some of the essentials. I understand the welfare has been helping with food stamps, but it’s not enough,” Khan said.
Murphy made the announcement Thursday during citizenship swearing-in ceremonies in Camden. Advocates say it’s a campaign promise kept.
“We think this is great progress for the state of New Jersey. The governor understands we’re a state of immigrants and refugees, and it’s important for us to really make sure that our state is doing the right thing by them. Unfortunately, Gov. Christie decided that he didn’t want to be a part of refugee resettlement here in New Jersey,” said Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
In 2016, former Gov. Chris Christie ceded refugee resettlement oversight to the federal government. Local agencies stepped into the gap. Then the Trump administration throttled back quotas — and refugee admissions in New Jersey went from 212 in the reporting period between Oct. 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, down to 145 in the same reporting period ending May 31, 2019. That’s 32% fewer refugees through the federal pipeline.
“We can step up and say that we will take refugees and we will welcome them into our state, which is what this does,” Calle said.
“This is not just for the refugee population. It seems, from the executive order that it has a much broader mandate,” said Sara Cullinane with Make the Road New Jersey.
Some advocates claim Murphy’s order also affects the larger immigrant community and will, for example, help people intimidated by federal regulations.
“Like the public charge rule, which would make people ineligible to get a green card if they’ve used any public services. That’s created an enormous chilling effect. We’ve seen a huge drop off in usage of WIC and food stamps by U.S. citizen children of immigrants. One thing we hope this office can do is help get the word out on who’s eligible,” Cullinane said.
Murphy’s Executive Order 74 says the state will notify federal authorities that it’s resuming oversight of refugee resettlement, providing assistance such as short term cash, medical coordination, case management, and integrating social service among state agencies to help immigrants find their place in Jersey.
The International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth says it “is excited to see the state of New Jersey resuming its role to support the lifesaving resettlement program and unveiling the Office for New Americans.”
“We’re willing to conduct a need assessment, to provide them with a need assessment, to see what the refugees are going through on a daily basis,” Khan said.
All the extra help is still months away. New Jersey’s Departments of Human Services and Labor have until Dec. 4 to submit plans, but it’s the shift in attitude that’s paying immediate political dividends.