Terry Branstad's weak excuse for axing refugee support funding

The apparent attempt to bury Governor Terry Branstad's large batch of budget cuts before the July 4 holiday weekend isn't working. Fallout from the governor's line-item vetoes continues to make news on a daily basis. Today, Iowa Senate Democratic leaders announced that they have formally asked colleagues to request a special legislative session to override the highest-profile and largest vetoes, which affected education and mental health funding.

Meanwhile, the latest article by the Des Moines Register's "Reader's Watchdog" Lee Rood called attention to an item veto that flew below the radar last week: $100,000 from the health and human services budget, intended for a pilot project to serve refugees in Polk County. The amount of money was so small--far less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $7 billion state budget--that Branstad couldn't fall back on misleading statements about "fiscal health" to justify this item veto. Instead, he cited an equally weak pretext.

Rood wrote an excellent series for the Register last month on "hardships faced by Iowa's refugee groups," particularly those who fled from Burma (Myanmar). You can find links to all her reports here. Part 2 focused on the lack of services available to thousands of refugees in Iowa.

The safety net Iowa built decades ago to usher in large groups of refugees, one that helped the state gain a national reputation as a welcoming place, is tattered.

In Des Moines, where the vast majority of the newcomers have moved from other states to find work, no single agency oversees the resettlement efforts, making services fragmented, hard to find and sometimes nonexistent. [...]

The crisis affects all refugees, but is particularly acute among the Burmese, many of whom came to the U.S. from primitive refugee camps, unable to read or write their primary language. The short time lines and limited resources to learn English, access assistance and assimilate are failing many people, especially teens and adults, those who work with the Burmese say. [...]

Only about 2,000 of the 6,000 to 7,000 refugees from Burma who have come to Iowa over the past decade have been formally resettled with the help of the U.S. government. The remaining 4,000 or so have come because work has been more widely available here than in other states. The newcomers have little access to services.

At the same time, about 80 percent of the public and private agencies that work with refugees in the Des Moines area have reported being "overwhelmed" by the needs of those they serve. Those agencies, members of a group called the Des Moines Refugee Planning Coalition, say they do not have nearly enough interpreters to assist the refugees they serve now, according to a coalition survey of providers.

Democratic State Senator Janet Petersen and State Representative Marti Anderson worked on this issue during the legislative session and provided some background in their guest editorial for the Des Moines Register on June 26:

Government resources fall far short of meeting crucial needs of these invited new Iowans. Some families receive 90 days of "core" services (for example, help with housing, Social Security and sign-up for state aid) and up to two years of some other servieces related to work, language training, and medical needs. These services are invaluable.

But most of these services are too brief, and are not even available to "secondary" Burmese refugee migrants, the 4,000 or so who came to Iowa from other states to take jobs in Iowa hotels, factories and meat-packing plants.

Iowans proudly recall the 1970s and early 1980s when Gov. Robert Ray and the state welcomed Vietnamese and Tai Dam refugees. The reality today is that we now have more refugees, less state and federal money, and fewer trained experts in meeting the needs of many refugees.

Several bills meant to shore up official assistance to refugees died in the Iowa Legislature this year, including measures to provide more interpreters for legal proceedings and more funds for English-language instruction.

The Legislature did approve $100,000 for our proposal for "community navigators." This pilot program would train leaders from the refugee community to help other refugees work through challenges and help them take advantage of crucial assistance programs such as housing, medical care and benefits. (We urge Gov. Terry Branstad to follow in the tradition of Governor Ray by approving this modest appropriation.)

You can read the description of that pilot project in Division XXX of Senate File 505, the health and human resources appropriations bill (pages 91 and 92).

The governor rejected the funding, explaining in his veto message,

I am unable to approve of the item designated as Division XXX in its entirety. This item creates a Polk County-centered pilot project for refugee services. Iowans have a proud history of working in public-private partnerships to support refugees coming to our state. However, the path refugees take to Iowa has changed over time. More time is needed to study a state-wide solution for refugees and immigrants who originally went to other states and how Iowa, both publicly and privately, can best meet the needs of modern refugees.

The governor's premise makes no sense. Funding a pilot project doesn't compete with the goal of identifying an optimal statewide solution to serving refugees or other immigrants. On the contrary, pilot programs are routinely used to test policies in one or more localities.

The Branstad administration has employed the same strategy many times. For example, Iowa's education reform package included funding for pilot projects in certain school districts, and the Iowa Department of Public Health has launched some programs in a few hospitals before expanding them statewide.

Since statehouse Republicans didn't agree to enough fiscal year 2016 funding to cover any statewide refugee support services, it made sense to start with a project in Polk County, where the largest group of Iowa refugees from Myanmar live. Investing $100,000 over the coming fiscal year would have provided policy-makers with some data on how effectively "community navigators" did the job they were trained to do.

Rood followed up with the governor's office on what they have in mind to address the needs of Iowa refugees:

When asked to elaborate on the governor's plans and his veto, Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said Branstad is interested in exploring what community-based resources and other federal resources may be available.

"The governor understands that some areas of the state have more refugee and immigrant settlement than other portions, but he believes a statewide approach is in the best interest of the state, the taxpayers, and most importantly the refugees and immigrants coming to Iowa," the statement said.

How does funding a pilot project for the largest community of refugees work against the state's interest in figuring out how to deal with this problem?

Would taxpayers be better off with state officials and lawmakers flying blind, developing policies in the absence of any local data on what does and doesn't work?

Even if the governor's staff were working on a grand strategy to build a better safety net for Iowa's refugees (I've seen no evidence that they are), Branstad's item veto would not help the cause in any way, shape, or form.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Rood's article in the July 12 Sunday Des Moines Register cited another argument for investing in refugee social services sooner rather than later:

Those who have analyzed data related to Southeast Asians who came to the United States years ago found that in places like Fresno, Calif., where there was little support and much poverty, large numbers of Hmong refugees relied on cash assistance for income for years.

But in places like the Twin Cities, which offered a greater safety net and more programming, many Hmong refugees became financially independent and established small businesses.

"We're seeing three to four decades later that if people don't have the right support structure, that they will still be reliant on social welfare programs," said Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, assistant director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

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