DES MOINES — A group of service providers and advocates asked Iowa legislators Tuesday to maintain the level of funding provided last session for refugee programs.
Eastern and Central Iowa refugee assistance providers were invited by Lutheran Services in Iowa — which provides many workforce development and English language lessons for refugees — to take part in Refugee Day on the Hill.
Des Moines-based organizations like Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy & Resource Center and Catholic Charities attended the event. Joining them were Eastern Iowa service providers, including employees from the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids and IC Compassion of Iowa City, which both provide refugee services.
Advocates asked 12 lawmakers from the Senate and House to push to appropriate $200,000 from the education budget for community English language learning programs in Central Iowa and $300,000 from the health and human services budget for the RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps, an initiative that allows refugee members to gain work and leadership skills by helping fellow refugees through community service.
Jill Niswander, director of Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy & Resource Center, said she felt the group made a realistic request by asking for the same level of funding during a tight budget year. RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps, a program run by Niswander’s organization, has expanded after the state approved $300,000 in funding for the program last year.
The program was able to grow from 17 RefugeeRISE employees at four service sites to 37 members at 10 sites across the state. About 60 percent of the RefugeeRISE employees are refugees.
Niswander said she told legislators how beneficial she thinks the program is, and how funding at the same level would be beneficial.
“This year, our story is reassuring them that their money is being used for the way we said it would be,” Niswander said. “When we went up with our proposal it was really important that it was something that appealed to most legislators.”
Niswander said she wants legislators to know refugees are strengthening Iowa communities and can be an asset to Iowa’s workforce.
“We’re not asking for a handout,” she said. “We’re not asking for people who are never going to help themselves. This is a win-win for everything.”
Paula Land, executive director of the Catherine McAuley Center, a primary refugee settlement organization, said although she didn’t receive guarantees from any of the 12 legislators, she remains hopeful they will advocate for funding.
The Catherine McAuley Center has two RefugeeRISE employees stationed at the center, and Land said they are hoping to secure two more full-time RefugeeRISE employees this summer.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he will make refugee program funding a priority, but he said he doesn’t think it will be an easy sell.
“We’re in a really tough budget year,” Bolkcom said. “Advocates are going to have to talk to the Republicans who now control the budgeting.”
Niswander said it only makes sense to help refugees in Iowa.
“This year, regardless of how you feel about who should be let in or how, there’s a huge existing state here already,” she said. “This is setting them up for success.”
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