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 his 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 – is $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 might get worse.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed wiping out completely programs that subsidize English classes, job search 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 boasting that refugees are “legal” immigrants.
It’s an uphill fight, though. The state is grappling with a more than $4 billion deficit for the next two-year budget. Lawmakers are also trying to patch a hole of half a billion million in the next two-year budget. In this program, the state provides cash to agencies to provide English classes, job training and job search help.
Refugee advocates say this program is critical 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 this month. Those reductions to welfare payments ordered by Gregoire will save the state $21 million 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 the 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.
Since 2002, Washington has ranked sixth in the nation in refugee resettlement with about 24,500 initial arrivals.