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Cuts to Alaska refugee services could result from unaccompanied minors crisis at U.S. border

Michelle Theriault Boots

The mounting tide of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest U.S. border to flee poverty and violence in Central America might be felt in Alaska through deep cuts to services designed to help newly arrived refugees start their lives here. 

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement plans to shift $94 million away from refugee services to deal with the unaccompanied minors, the advocacy group Refugee Council USA said in a “call to action” for its members.

In Anchorage, that could mean a loss of about $350,000 in federal money unless new funding comes through, said Susan Bomalaski, the head of Catholic Social Services, which oversees the state’s Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program.   

The Obama administration on Tuesday requested  $3.7 billion from Congress to address the border crisis, including $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to care for unaccompanied minors while "maintaining services for refugees." 

About 120 children and adults per year are resettled in Alaska from home countries that include Iraq, Somalia and Myanmar. Most live in Anchorage.

The cuts, which take effect on Aug. 15, would wipe out:

• A program to keep older refugees from becoming isolated, through group activities and study for citizenship tests.

• A program to integrate refugee families into the Anchorage School District, supplying tutors and interpreters to help parents communicate with school staff. A youth soccer team made up of refugee children and called The Fugees would also be a victim of the school program’s demise. 

• A preventative health care program aimed at introducing refugees to the American health system.  

The agency avoided putting its “welcome center” -- where new arrivals learn about bus routes, grocery stores and other essentials of American life -- and employment preparation program on the cutting block.  

Alaska’s refugee program is small but successful, Bomalaski said.

Eighty percent of adult refugees are employed within six months in the state. After a year, about 80 percent of families are no longer on public assistance.

In 2011, Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services won an award from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for its "holistic" approach to resettlement.

Bomalaski says the breadth of services the nonprofit offers is one reason for the success of those new to Alaska.

Contact Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com.