State Department changes 2-year-old rule that restricted refugee resettlement to Detroit area

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. State Department has decided to relax a two-year-old policy that limited refugee resettlement to the Detroit area because of Michigan's struggling economy.

An influx of Iraqi refugees have come to the area in recent years, many of whom were attracted to the Detroit area because of its large Middle Eastern population. But authorities said two years ago only those with close relatives could resettle there, in part out of fear that they would be unable to find work.

Now, the State Department says anyone with family and friends can come to the area, Lawrence Bartlett, the department's deputy director of refugee admissions, told The Associated Press.

Most refugees with immediate family had been resettled and there was room to accept more, Bartlett said. He said the decision was made after consulting with the state refugee services office, resettlement agencies and other community leaders.

"The (refugee assistance) agencies assured us they were able to provide the necessary supporting services to help with integration," Bartlett said Tuesday. "A couple of years ago, they made it clear to us they were stretched."

One big reason for the change was the State Department's decision in January to double the payments to resettlement agencies on behalf of each refugee to $1,800. That money is designed to help refugees with their expenses, such as food and housing, for up to 90 days.

With the increase, "we were able to take a new look at this restriction," Bartlett said.

The government also sought to prevent secondary migration, when refugees come on their own to Michigan after first being settled somewhere else. Though no precise figures exist, hundreds of Iraqis independently made their way to the Detroit area since June 2008 to connect with the community's culture despite Michigan's soaring unemployment rate, which was 13.6 percent in May. It was the first time in four years the state escaped the distinction of having the nation's highest jobless rate, ceding the top spot to Nevada.

He said making Detroit the primary resettlement place will be less disruptive to the refugees because they can receive financial and other assistance directly from the local resettlement agencies.

The original restriction came as the U.S. government began increasing the overall number of Iraqis granted refugee status. The government resettled 2,744 people — mainly Iraqis — to the Detroit area from June 25, 2008, to June 24, 2009. During the same period a year earlier, 1,643 refugees were resettled in the area. From June 25, 2009, through Friday, 1,887 were resettled.

Iraqi refugee Ahmad Mahmoud picked Tucson, Ariz., for his home last year but he left within two weeks for the Detroit area because a friend said he'd find many who spoke his language and served his style of food. He's now living on financial aid and loans as he studies to become a pharmacist.

He lives with a brother, who joined him earlier this year after also being sent first to Tucson. Another brother came to the U.S. with Mahmoud but he returned to the Middle East when he couldn't find a good job. He's honest with other family members about how hard it has been.

"I told my family to stay away from Michigan," said Mahmoud, 23. "There's no jobs here for my family."