Baltimore-based World Relief to lay off 140, close Glen Burnie office after Trump's refugee order

Facing a sharp drop in refugees entering the United States under President Donald J. Trump's executive order on immigration, World Relief, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that helps resettle refugees, will close five offices and lay off more than 140 staff members nationwide.

World Relief will close offices in Glen Burnie as well as in Boise, Idaho; Columbus, Ohio; Miami; and Nashville, Tenn. The locations being closed helped resettle more than 25,000 refugees over the past four decades, the faith-based organization said.


The Glen Burnie office employs 10 people and another five to 10 jobs are expected to be eliminated at the group's headquarters on East Baltimore Street, said Emily Gray, senior vice president of U.S. Ministries. The layoffs, which will take place over the next three to four months, were announced late Wednesday.

"Our decision to curtail our network is a sad reality but also a decision to position us for strength in future," Gray said.


World Relief, which moved to Baltimore in 2001, worked with the U.S. State Department and local churches to resettle refugees in the United States, helping them secure housing, employment and schooling for children, as well as immigration counseling.

The organization opened additional offices across the country to prepare for the 110,000 refugees who were to be admitted into the U.S. in the 2017 fiscal year under a plan by President Barack Obama, she said.

But Trump's election upended those plans. On Jan. 27, the new president issued an executive order that froze the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and capped the number of refugees admitted at 50,000. That part of the order is not affected by a recent court challenge, which Trump said Thursday he will address with a second order tailored to the judicial decision.

An estimated 65 million people are fleeing war and persecution in their home countries worldwide, many of them from Syria, Iraq and the five other majority-Muslim nations Trump targeted in the order. Trump argued the order is necessary to ensure the nation's safety from terrorist threats hidden among refugees, and called for "extreme vetting" of any refugee candidates.

Gray compared World Relief's layoffs to building a new school and then finding out at the ribbon-cutting that enrollment had dropped by half.

"We can't support the network we had built to support the much larger number," Gray said.

World Relief will continue to assist refugees with citizenship applications and other issues at its Baltimore legal clinic and will refer them to other local nonprofits, such as the International Rescue Committee, for other services.

The presence of other refugee resettlement agencies was a chief consideration in deciding which offices to close, Gray said.


"We want the best for the refugees who have already been welcomed into a community," she said. "We're trying to be as responsible as we can in the middle of difficult situation."

Baltimore — with its relatively inexpensive cost of living and proximity to Washington — hosts a number of refugee and immigration agencies, including the Catholic Relief Services and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the local branch of the International Rescue Committee, said his organization has between 80 and 85 full-time staff at its locations in Baltimore and Silver Spring. The IRC resettled about 900 refugees in the Baltimore area and about 400 in Silver Spring in the last fiscal year, he said.

"We anticipated doing the same this year," Chandrasekar said, "but the executive order has obviously put some question marks behind those numbers."

Funding for most refugee resettlement organizations is largely provided by administrative fees paid by the State Department based on the number of resettlements each group manages, he said. When the flow of refugees stops, he said, nonprofits must scale back.

The IRC has not made plans to reduce staffing, Chandrasekar said.


Baltimore, which has struggled to rebound from years of population decline, is the perfect place for refugees looking to escape dire circumstances and live productive, stable lives, he said. About 85 percent of refugees are self-sufficient within six to eight months of arriving in the U.S.

Chandrasekar praised World Relief's efforts.

"They've done a great job of resettling refugees," he said. "It's sad to see the U.S. is shutting its door to the most vulnerable people on the planet."

Bill Frelick, director of the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch, said World Relief layoffs will be "a huge loss," especially for those refugees who are still in the process of being resettled.

"The likely outcome is that people who otherwise would achieve early sufficiency, they are going to be more likely to end up on public assistance, because they're not going to have people that are volunteering their time to help them get integrated into this country," he said.

Most of the U.S.'s refugee aid efforts come in the form of financial and other support given to countries like Jordan that bear 87 percent of the refugee population from war-torn neighbors, Frelick said. The small percentage of refugees who are resettled in the U.S. undergo one to three years of intense federal background checks and have no say in choosing the country where they're placed, he said.


"What the U.S. program does is it helps to identify those people who are of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.," Frelick said. "They do undergo extensive vetting to ensure that no one represents a security threat. If there's any gray area, they're not admitted."

Frelick said it's important to distinguish between refugees and immigrants, who often move to join family members in the U.S. or find work.

"They are not choosing," he said of refugees. "They're saying, 'I'm in danger. I can't remain in Jordan. Get me out of here.' ... What makes them succeed here is very much tied in to integration and the reception they get from voluntary organizations."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells and the Associated Press contributed to this article.