Wisconsin Group is the 'Face of Welcome' for Refugees in a Time of Uncertainty

Feb 20, 2017

It is an uncertain time to be a refugee trying to come to the United States. It’s an equally uncertain time for those who have made it their life’s work to resettle refugees in the U.S.

Mary Flynn is the program director of Refugee & Immigrant Services at Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Since 1974, the organization has resettled more than 10,000 refugees from 15 countries.

Both the organization and a majority of this year’s incoming refugees have been affected by the Trump administration’s January executive order on immigration. The order initially suspended refugee admissions for 120 days and effectively cut off federal funding to places like Lutheran Social Services for that time period.

But there has been intense litigation in the federal courts, including a case that softened some of the order's initial effects, says Flynn. "People that had valid visas for entry and who had travel already scheduled to come to Milwaukee as a refugee have had their travel reinstated," she details. "So we are receiving about 30 people in February.” 

"Just yesterday we were notified that people who had advanced visas and travel may also be allowed to come in up until March 30th, but we haven’t received confirmation of that yet," she adds.

Flynn is trying to stay focused on the work yet to do. “Our jobs actually start at the airport, we really have no influence on pre-arrival processing,” she explains. “… So when people do arrive, they’re looking for that face of welcome. When they see that it’s one of our staff, the look on their face is sheer relief.”

But the organization's work doesn't end at the airport. Flynn explains that there are many tasks after their initial greeting, through which the organization helps the family get settled.

“We get the kids enrolled in school. We get the parents enrolled in ESL. We help them apply for a social security number,” she continues. “We assure that they get a refugee health screening—a really good, comprehensive evaluation with an eye on communicable diseases. We connect them to a primary physician, try to find a dentist, get them started on employment activities and get them a job as soon as possible.”

She says that the core services must be completed according to State Department guidelines within 30-90 days. But she adds that the group assists refugees with things like green card and citizenship applications up until five years after arrival.

“The United States government has set up all of these expectations and guidelines for programs because they don’t bring people here to do poorly,” she explains. “They want people to thrive and have opportunity and to get some guidance as to how to continue that path to full achievement of citizenship.”

As for the recent developments including the executive order, she says, “Well, day by day, we’ve been trying to take a conservative and thoughtful approach, rather than react. We’re just trying to respond with what is."

Despite the many fears among refugees and other immigrants trying to start to new lives in the U.S., Flynn holds on to some optimism. “I have a feeling that with the 120 day hold, the administration is really looking for an opportunity to learn more and truly understand this process,” she explains.

“Once they do, I’m really hopeful, and feeling pretty confident that they’ll understand that this [refugee program] really is a representation of our democracy, and that they’ll have more comfort in moving ahead.”