On January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven countries from entering the United States and halting refugee resettlement altogether. Four and a half months later, it is still affecting refugee resettlement in Buffalo.
All refugees are required to take an eight week English as a Second Language course when they arrive in the United States, which not only gives them language skills but also practical and cultural skills. But refugee resettlement effectively stopped with the ban, leaving teachers with no newcomers to teach.
“We’re kind of in limbo, because we were… averaging about five new students a week in 2016,” said Maria Eley, who teaches a newcomer class for refugees resettled by Catholic Charities through the Buffalo Public School’s Adult Education Program. “And after the change in the administration and the first executive order, everything came to a halt.”
Even though the executive order was quickly halted by a federal judge, as was a second version signed by Trump in March, the resettlement agencies have had very few new refugees.
“[When the ban was halted] it wasn’t as if the system automatically just kicked back in,” said Jeff Offhaus, who teaches in the same program as Eley. “It takes time for things to get back in motion. And then it happened again, there was a second ban.”
Rather than moving the students along to more advanced courses, Eley and Offhaus kept the students who had been in the eight week program when the ban took effect, and extended and expanded on the curriculum.
“If I kept moving my students out of my class after eight weeks, pretty soon I’d be out of a job, because all of my students would have moved on and there wouldn’t be any new students to replace them,” said Offhaus.
The change from a fixed curriculum for a changing student body to an ongoing curriculum for the same set of people required some creativity from the teachers.
“We’re kind of in limbo, because we were… averaging about five new students a week in 2016…after the change in the administration and the first executive order, everything came to a halt.”
“In one way it was nice, because I had more freedom to teach what I want to teach,” said Offhaus. “But on the other hand, it’s difficult for me, teaching’s not my only job … so that’s a lot more prep work.”
The change in format has been a challenge, but there have been some upsides.
“Even though overall we consider [the ban] a huge negative … it gives the students who have been there longer a chance to provide more of, like, a support and mentorship role, because it is incredibly stressful for new arrivals,” said Eley.
The classes may be going back to their original format soon. Some of Offhaus’s students who have been in his class since before the ban are preparing to move on, and new students are arriving slowly, although not yet in pre-ban numbers.
On June 10, the Buffalo News reported that people who had been scheduled to be resettled in Buffalo before the ban are finally starting to arrive again, and more will be arriving later this month. But the number of resettled refugees is still 32 percent lower than the same point a year ago.
“Seeing the effects of the ban was almost immediate,” said Offhaus. “Now if the ban has been suspended or totally abolished, how long is it going to take to get back up to normal? It’s hard to say.”