Damakant Jayshi

Wausau could see as many as 100 new refugees resettling in the city beginning in October if a federal agency reviewing the resettlement gives final approval for the plan.

The proposal was submitted by Arlington, Virginia-based Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies nationwide. The U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration is reviewing the proposal. If approved, which officials say is a likelihood, the first batch of new refugees could arrive late this or early next year. State Department officials did not have a comment by press time.

The council is already advertising for a site director’s position to be based in Wausau. 

Organizations in Wausau associated with the effort have also started preparing for the new arrivals. Tsehaye Teferra, president of ECDC, told Wausau Pilot & Review that he is confident the plan will be approved by federal officials.

 “I hope so,” he said, adding he expects the greenlight by late August or early September. ECDC is also planning a similar program in Brattleboro, VT.

Refugees are expected from Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. 

“For Wausau, we are currently working with ECDC and PRM to figure out what would be the most appropriate number,” said Bojana Zoric Martinez, director of Bureau of Refugee Programs (BRP), Department of Children and Families (DCF). “We are also working with PRM and other local resettlement agencies to figure out projected arrivals for the rest of Wisconsin.”

Officials say PRM supports the initial 30-90 day post arrival process through Reception and Placement funding, which passes through a local resettlement agency responsible for initial refugee resettlement, in this instance ECDC. After that and until five years post arrival, the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Health and Human Services provides support services such as employment, English as a Second language instruction, healthcare, and others. 

State refugee agencies receive funds from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to contract with service providers to work directly with refugees. 

“ORR programs in Wisconsin are fully supported by ORR funds; there is no cost sharing or matching by the state,” Zoric Martinez, the state’s refugee coordinator, said.

Local community organizations, businesses, chambers of commerce and individuals voluntarily contribute toward the cost as well. A fact sheet by UNHCR USA lays out the refugee resettlement process in the United States.

Zoric Martinez said their office was first contacted by Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, two local congregations, and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) “to explore the possibility of welcoming and actively resettling refugees in this area again.” Wausau has successfully resettled thousands of Hmong refugees and since the 1970s.

ECDC is working with the City of Wausau and local community partners. One such local partner is First United Methodist Church in Wausau.

A note from Pastor Rebecca Voss, on the church’s website, shared details about how Voss reached out to ECDC and state officials in Madison to ensure Wausau was selected as a host to the new refugees.

“About two months ago several people in our church shared a passion to reach out to love and to serve people who were longing for safety and freedom,” Pastor Voss said. She noted that refugees are the most vetted immigrants to the U.S., taking an average of three years for final approval. Several federal agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, are involved in the refugee vetting and resettlement process.

Voss expressed confidence in seeing the first arrivals this year. 

“We are preparing for the refugees, and I am in touch with other faith leaders who have expressed their willingness to help the refugees resettle in Wausau,” Pastor Voss told Wausau Pilot & Review. She is also hosting a meeting of faith leaders Tuesday evening.

In her note on the website, Pastor Voss said that “with Mayor Katie’s enthusiastic support”, church representatives connected with state officials to help pave the way for the process to begin. Voss added that Wausau was selected as the venue for resettlement instead of Milwaukee, which was also considered. 

Mayor Rosenberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The proposed refugee resettlement program comes amid a backdrop of sharp differences over a diversity resolution under consideration but not yet approved at both the city and county level. A number of elected officials and local Republican party officials from the City of Wausau and Marathon County have vehemently opposed passing the measure. 

“There is definitely a risk of backlash,” Voss said. “But faith and community leaders feel this is the right thing to do. Our church is committed to it, as are others.” 

Voss said the program reflects true Christian hospitality by doing “what Jesus Christ meant by saying welcoming the stranger.”

Misinformation about refugees in the U.S. is pervasive. Some conservatives who were once in favor of legal immigration and supporting refugees who legally come to this country reversed their position after former president Donald Trump promoted what his ‘America First’ policies. The Trump administration rejected a study by HHS, which said refugees are ultimately beneficial because they pay back and contribute to the U.S. economy.

Since January this year, about 3,780 refugees from around the world. According to the State Dept.’s Refugee Processing Center, which tracks such arrivals in the country, 173 refugees resettled in Wisconsin between October 2020 and June this year. The nationalities of the refugees include the Democratic Republic of Congo (116), Burma (37), Sudan (8), Syria (5), Palestine (4), Iraq (2) and Burundi (1).