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Office of Refugee Resettlement 2010 National Consultation

Washington, DC
June 7, 2010

Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Nazario. Carmen has a wealth of experience at the state, federal and international levels, in academia, and on the ground. I also want to recognize the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Eskinder Negash, who brings such energy and dedication to this job, and welcome Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alexander Aleinikoff.

And I want to extend a special welcome to all of you whose home—until recently—was somewhere other than the United States. I understand we have folks from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Iraq, Somalia and host of other countries attending this consultation. We are very glad you’re here.

We know that refugees have overcome obstacles and experienced hardships that most of us who have lived in the United States all of our lives can’t begin to imagine.

We’re very proud that for more than 200 years the U.S. has been a beacon of hope for people who fight for many of the freedoms we take for granted here. Practicing your religion. Engaging in politics. Or taking pride in belonging to an ethnic minority.

Refugees, and many of you here, have made the difficult decision to come to the United States only because remaining in your home country involved great personal risk.

Settling in a new country isn't easy—there is English to learn, new customs to get used to, and ultimately, a new life to build.

That’s where the Office of Refugee Resettlement comes in. It plays a critical role in helping refugees, people who have been granted asylum, Cuban and Haitian entrants, and victims of torture, start new lives here in the U.S.

I want to congratulate the Office of Refugee Resettlement on its 30th Anniversary. This office was created after the Vietnam War to help refugees from Southeast Asia. Since then, the U.S. has admitted almost 3 million refugees and committed over $15 billion to this important work.

You are working harder than ever today, making it possible for people to take English classes, get job training, find housing and integrate themselves into American life. Your Individual Development Accounts Program helps folks buy a home, pay for college, buy the car they need for employment, or start their own businesses.

You connect people with the health care they need, including health screening and mental health services that are essential for someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, depression, or other illnesses that can result from the trauma of persecution.

The First Lady recently had the opportunity to see a working example of what you achieve when she was in San Diego and toured the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Community Farm. This program is right in line with her efforts to end obesity in this country, and she remarked how these plots of land and vegetables were symbolic of the hopes every new arrival has to make a home, keep their families healthy, and give their kids a better life.

We saw the Office of Refugee Resettlement in action earlier this year when Haiti suffered its devastating earthquake. Your mission extends beyond the critical work of resettling refugees—it includes helping American citizens who are evacuated from other countries during disasters.

You made sure that thousands of people evacuated from Haiti had a place to go when they arrived in the U.S. Thanks to you, almost 7,500 Americans who left Haiti with little more than what they were wearing, received cash loans, money to get them to their final destinations, clothes, lodging, and in some cases, medical care.

These were people like the five-year old boy and his grandmother who showed up at the Port-au-Prince airport upset and without resources. The little boy and his mother had come to Haiti to visit the grandmother. Then the earthquake struck and the mother was killed.

You connected them with Florida’s Department of Children and Families…and Lourdes, who has worked with the Florida Department for the past 14 years. When grandma and grandson arrived in Orlando, Florida’s Department of Children and Families loaned them travel money and got them home safely to the little boy’s dad.

As luck would have it, Lourdes was waiting for news from her 69-year old mother, who was visiting family in Haiti when the earthquake occurred. Lourdes’s mom made it to the U.S. embassy and arrived back home carrying only her purse. Afterwards, she told Lourdes that she got “royal treatment” with food, water, towels and a place to bathe. Another example of the humanitarian assistance you made possible during those difficult days.

You also helped more than 600 Haitian children awaiting adoption who—thanks to you and your partners in Texas, Chicago, New York and Florida—could join their new families here in the U.S.

Part of the reason the Office of Refugee Resettlement has been so successful is that it is part of a government-wide team.

The President has made it very clear to all of us at the cabinet level that he expects all cabinet officers to leverage their assets and work together. And refugee resettlement is a high priority for the Administration—as a humanitarian issue, as a national security issue, and as an issue that has a profound effect on the health and well-being of the people of this country.

So HHS is currently part of the National Security Council’s White House’s Refugee Reform Workgroup, which includes the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security

This workgroup is tackling important issues—working together to improve the placement process, improving health and vaccination protocols, making sure refugees are placed in welcoming communities, and deploying resettlement resources where they’re needed most.

Last October, I met with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres at his request, to discuss how we can work together to improve services for refugees, victims of trafficking, survivors of torture, and unaccompanied children in the United States.

HHS has been a leader in federal efforts to bring trafficking into the sunshine and we were among the signatories of the “Joint Statement of Commitment to Action” against trafficking at the President’s Interagency Task Force Meeting at the State Department in February.

We are forging partnerships to help people who have survived persecution—with the Department of Agriculture for nutrition assistance and support for farming businesses, with the Small Business Administration, government at the state and local levels, the non-profit and the private sectors as well.

And we will certainly build on the work that the Office of Refugee Resettlement already does within HHS. Our department has an array of resources that ORR must tap on a regular basis. From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the Administration on Aging for social services, to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the new Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, for access to affordable health care.

Refugees, as legal immigrants, will be able have the same health security under the new Affordable Care Act as millions of other Americans. While some of the changes will take a few years, every year, people’s access to health care is going to improve.

When the insurance reform law is fully in effect in 2014, refugees—like other people who live in this country legally—will be able to count on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for help if they are low income, and individuals and families will be able purchase affordable coverage through new health insurance exchanges.

The Affordable Care Act will also provide comprehensive prescription coverage to seniors and it will stop insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, which is especially important for refugees, who often arrive in the U.S. after years without access to proper medical care.

We’re going to need everyone’s input today on how the Office of Refugee Resettlement can be even more effective, from helping people launch their own business, to protecting unaccompanied children, to lessons learned over the last 30 years.

And while we sincerely want to know how we can further ease the transition to the U.S., ultimately we expect to get as much as we give. People who have fled persecution and arrived here with nothing, have gone on to graduate college, become doctors and lawyers, successful entrepreneurs, and committed public servants. They have raised families and are part of the fabric of our communities. They have returned the investment the American people have made in them with interest.

We are firmly committed to helping newcomers make the transition between the home they were forced to leave and this country—which we hope is not only a safe haven but will, in time, also feel like home.

We’re very proud of the fact that the U.S. has been a model for other countries in refugee resettlement. We accept more refugees, per year, than the rest of the world combined, and we not only offer protection, but we also do our utmost to integrate refugees into American life.

I’d like to make one last comment about Haiti. ORR Director Negash has said that the folks at ORR and state employees who provided meals, and towels, and travel money to distraught people getting off the planes from Haiti provided much more than services—they provided hope. I think Lourdes’s mom would agree. When she arrived in the United States, she told Lourdes, “I never felt so proud to be an American.”

That’s our goal—we want every refugee who comes to the U.S. to be proud to be an American, too.

Thank you and have a good conference.