A conversation with Anna Crosslin

by Benjamin Collinger

Anna Crosslin is the President and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, an organization that has helped thousands of refugees and immigrants transition to life in the St. Louis area. Since beginning with the International Institute in 1978, Crosslin has, among other initiatives, led efforts to resettle refugees from Bosnia after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Crosslin is also a co-founder of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a nationally recognized multi-sector led immigration attraction initiative. She has earned numerous awards for her work in the community. Crosslin spoke to me about her career leading the International Institute, the multi-layered political process by which refugees are resettled, and her advice for President-Elect Donald Trump.

What inspired you to pursue a career with the International Institute? 

My whole life has really been focused on being able to promote a multicultural environment. Part of the rationale for that is because I am half Japanese and I was born in Tokyo. My mother is a Japanese immigrant, and my father was a member of the U.S. Air Force. He was a language specialist who spoke Russian and Japanese. He met my mother on leave during the Korean War. So, my whole life, I grew up in a household that was multicultural. And I saw the challenges that my mother faced earlier on – just being able to be integrated in the community. Later, after my father died and she raised four children and operated a restaurant in a largely foreign environment to her. I wanted to be able to help ease that transition to others.


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You have led the International Institute since 1978 – around the time that Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees started coming to the United States – did you have any interaction with this refugee crisis? 

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. resettled substantial numbers of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. In the case of St. Louis, the largest population we resettled were the Vietnamese followed by the Laotians and virtually no Cambodians. The Cambodians went to other communities where there were either already existing Cambodian communities or where they preferred to be. I would doubt that there were more than 25 Cambodian families in St. Louis. Today, there are probably not even that many. But there were probably 8 to 10 thousand Vietnamese and at least 2 to 3 thousand Laotians.

The International Institute resettled around 7,000 refugees from Bosnia after the war. When you realized that many refugees would be coming to St. Louis, what were the initial steps that you took to accommodate them? 

First of all, when the Bosnians were initially approved for resettlement in St. Louis, we had no idea that the program would become as large as it eventually was. So we proceeded as we did for every other refugee population that we would resettle; that has to do with engaging St. Louisans of those heritages who may speak the languages, utilizing them as volunteers for the actual work of the agency, and also for socialization opportunities. Beyond that, it was about things we’re required to do: securing housing, finding the first job.

Refugees arrive in a community through two routes. One is that an organization, in those days it was us and the Catholics, offers to sponsor individuals directly. About 7,000 individuals were actually sponsored by the International Institute, but that was over a period of almost 10 years. Our largest years in the late 1990s were between 1,500 and 1,700 refugees a year. Back in 1993, we sponsored 32 for the whole year.

The second route is secondary migration. That means that Bosnians that were actually sponsored into other cities who heard from family members that St. Louis was a great place to live, they could move from their initial city of sponsorship to another. So the Bosnian community in St. Louis grew through both routes. We estimate at one point that the Bosnian community, including American born children, was as high as 70,000. Now, we think that it is perhaps as much as 50,000. The difference was individuals who moved here from other cities, and in those cases they may have been working for a while, and therefore they may have moved directly to St. Louis county and we didn’t ever serve them.

How did the Institute help people cope with traumatic experiences from the war?

Yes, there was a sizable percentage, particularly of the Women, with PTSD. After all of these years, it continues to be dramatic among a small percentage. That occurs with all refugee populations, not just the Bosnians. We had, and continue to have, social workers on staff here who work with the refugees. There is also a center for survivors of torture and war trauma operation here in St. Louis. They also took clients on referral.

What do you think that policymakers locally and nationally can learn about how organizations in St. Louis resettled the Bosnian population? 

It’s not so much about the Bosnians per se, but about what happens locally on the ground versus the policy and hype at a national level. And, the importance of relying on mayors as part of the decision-making process of resettling refugees versus the House and the Senate which is a good deal removed from the everyday issues of resettlement. What the mayors would tell you now about the “real dangers” associated with resettling Syrians or other Muslims would be very different from the kind of hype we’re hearing on a national basis.

The value that these individuals bring to the community in terms of entrepreneurship are things that mayors are going to be a good deal more interested in that Congress might be. When I look at the policy debate, I am always dismayed that the decision-making process for refugee resettlement is in the hands of federal bodies that really have different motivations than helping to build communities, even if those communities might be in their states.

Can you take me through the process of how refugees are placed in certain cities? 

Since 1980, the Department of State has utilized a process where refugee organizations –service organizations which include the International Institute through our national network – contract with the Department of State to resettle refugees. My national network is different from some of the denominational sponsors like the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops or Church World Service.

In the case of my national organization, which is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), it is composed of separate autonomous organizations like the International Institute, and some field offices of the actual USCRI. What happens then is that we contract through USCRI and the State Department. Each time a new population is approved for resettlement in the United States, the State Department decides which communities will become the hub of those populations based on language capacity, housing availability, jobs, existence of a current community.

There are two types of refugees that are admitted. There are those that are family reunification; they have relatives already somewhere in the United States. All other refugees are considered free cases. That means that they go where an organization offers to sponsor them instead. So, in our case, we might decide in advance that we can resettled 7 or 8 hundred refugees a year, and we submit an analysis of language capacity and all of those kinds of things to our national organization. Then the organization negotiates a contract with the Department of State and then the refugees over the next year arrive.

What are the most likely cases in which the State Department is likely to resettle refugees in St. Louis? 

It is a little more complex than that. What happens is that Congress reviews the President’s annual targets of refugees to be admitted from areas of the world and negotiates the number and areas of the world. Once that is approved, the contracts with the national organizations are drawn up and then we negotiate with our national organization about the number and refugee populations to be sponsored. While the U.S. Department of State has some say as to who goes where, in terms of groupings, they have virtually no say over which families will go to, say, Lincoln, Nebraska, or St. Louis, Missouri.

What makes St. Louis a good place for resettlement? 

St. Louis is a good environment for refugee resettlement because we really don’t have very many immigrants here. The foreign-born population in St. Louis is around 4.6 percent in the city and county. So, there are opportunities for foreign-born people here that they might not have in other communities that are much denser. There are positives and negatives; one is that a community that is denser might have more people who speak their language and could offer welcoming services. They might find a gas station where Arabic is spoken – these kinds of things.

But the other side of it is that they can be “impacted,” so it is called, by the federal government, which means that there are “too many” refugees there and there’s been negative community pushback. So, the fact that we don’t have very many refugees actually works to our advantage in terms of resettling more refugees. Aside from that, a fair number of the refugee families have had to wait for long periods of time in refugee camps, or in other ways in which they have lived in fairly destitute circumstances. Therefore, families may have had or developed serious medical cases.

So the fact that we have really top-notch medical complexes here in St. Louis that can address almost any kind of medical ailment is also an advantage because 30 percent of the refugees that we sponsored last year had one or more family members with a serious medical condition. That also determines who gets settled in St. Louis. The amount of available housing here is no better and no worse than other metropolitan areas. It is certainly more affordable than New York City or San Francisco.

Aihwa Ong’s Buddha is Hiding is one fascinating account of how different mechanisms such as medicine socialized Cambodian refugees in San Francisco. How do you view the ways that the International Institute socializes refugees into St. Louis’ society? 

To me, one of the most important factors in a strong socialization process is the ability to be able to speak English at a level of communicative competency. It is the underpinning of being able to get a job, and being able to get around the community on your own. Being able to ease that transition is incredibly important. One of the things that we do here versus many other metropolitan areas around the country is that we offer a one-stop shop. In another community, they might go to the community college for English classes, and the employment office for job services, et cetera.

Here in St. Louis because of the existence and size of the International Institute, they receive many of those services under the same roof. So, they are less likely to get lost in the gaps between services and their teacher can talk to their case worker or employment specialist and really be able to communicate issues and help our clients in terms of easing the transition.

How do you think that the way resettlement policy is made can be changed? 

It’s a structural problem, but the answer isn’t necessarily to put it in state hands because it is a microcosm of the federal government. In the Missouri legislature, we see a feeling of being threatened by Muslim refugees that doesn’t match up to the reality. That’s because in a state like Missouri, outside of the urban areas there is very little experience among Missouri residents with people who don’t look and act like them. So, transferring it to the states is not an answer either. Transferring it to the local level is very complicated because of the intermingling of so many different kinds of policies and procedures that are at the heart of successful refugee resettlement.

I have a tendency to think it has to stay at the federal level, but I also believe that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress desperately need to look beyond issues where they are pandering to their base. They should become the statesmen and women that our country could really benefit from. The advent of big money in order to turn out the vote has created a society in which many of our elected officials really do know the right answer. They know what they should do, but they’re just afraid to do it because then people who really don’t understand the situation, their constituents, will defeat them in the next election cycle. So they vote against the best interests of their cities and states to pander to a population that won’t like the outcome anyway.

In Missouri, there is legislation that people applying for driver’s licenses can only apply in English even though for the last 35 years or so, Missourians could take the test in any one of about 25 languages. The legislation, which is introduced every year, states that they should only take it in English. This is in spite of the insurance lobby in fact testifying many times that no data supports their belief that not being able to speak English fluently is a plus or negative in terms of accident rates. In fact, if they prohibit individuals from taking the test, those individuals will still drive but will be less likely to have insurance, which is a detriment to others on the road.

But every year, the legislation keeps coming out because they want to say to their constituency “we tried.” They use the rationale that it denies an important form of identification to undocumented people, even though they need a birth certificate to apply for the driver’s license. Therefore, there is already a  means of being able to prohibit undocumented people from applying for the license. This is in spite of the fact that the Missouri driver’s licenses don’t comply with the federal Real I.D. Act and in January of 2018, we will no longer be able to use a Missouri driver’s license to get through TSA at the airport. It’s pandering, not really about the issues.

How have you seen this type of legislation and anti-immigrant sentiment change during your time at the International Institute? 

It goes up and down. In 1979, Jimmy Carter announced 121,000 Vietnamese boat people were going to be admitted to the United States, which started the modern era of refugee resettlement. Ronald Reagan came in the 1980s, where we saw severe cuts to federal budgets including refugee resettlement. It took us a decade to recover from that. In the 1990s, refugees were admitted under Clinton in respectable numbers, certainly not respectable when looking at the fact that there were 20-25 million refugees around the world. 9/11 changed the refugee program again because there was a Muslim registry for 28 countries after that, and they began to resettle people from non-Muslim countries in much greater numbers. Suddenly, refugee populations that had been overlooked for decades had an opportunity to be resettled in the United States. They registered millions of people under the program – NSEERS – but they never found a terrorist in the group so it was kind of a waste. Now, Obama has closed the last vestiges of it this month. But they’re talking about re-starting it under Trump even though it never had any impact before.

Each of those periods of time, you saw the refugee population change. Most recently, we saw the program scale up significantly because of President Obama’s decision to add 15,000 refugees – of which 10,000 were Syrians – to the program in Sept. 2015. In those cases, that was still a smaller number than the number of Vietnamese that were settled under Carter. Still, the general residents in the United States think that we’re doing too much.

Does the sentiment in St. Louis mirror the country at large? 

No, in St. Louis, they are more welcoming. It’s not to say that there aren’t naysayers here, but the Mayor has been very positive because of his Syrian background. His great-grandparents at the turn of the last century came from a part of Syria and were Lebanese Christians. So he’s been very positive and supportive of not only Syrian resettlement but also Muslim resettlement. He has basically said to the media and naysayers to “stop it.” He’s stepping down after serving 16 years as mayor, and it is doubtful that we will have anyone as helpful as he has been.

What advice would you give President-Elect Donald Trump? 

I would say that his place in history will be determined by his ability to be able to look at issues of national concern for the long-term rather than the short. That means not worrying about his popularity or getting re-elected, but more about his legacy. The most revered Presidents are those who made decisions that had that long term impact. What really makes America great, and I believe it already is, is its welcoming attitude not an attitude of divisiveness based on color, creed, and national origin.

How can policymakers in St. Louis and around the state assist initiatives like the St. Louis Mosaic Project, one that you co-founded, and others like it that help connect the foreign-born population with entrepreneurial resources? 

This assumes that they’re interested in helping, because there are many people who are not positive about the foreign-born. But I think that the business community gets it in terms of understanding that entrepreneurs, whether they are foreign born or not, have great value to the economy of St. Louis. The St. Louis Mosaic Project has really worked hard at being able to promote that message in the broader community and has done it as a city-county collaborative. It includes the business community, higher education, government officials, and immigrant integration organizations like mine.

In spite of that, there are people at the local and state level that don’t understand the issues involved in immigration well enough to clearly articulate how immigrants and refugees provide value. For instance, corporations that hire will say that do not do labor certifications for foreign students even though they need STEM workers really badly. They really disadvantage themselves but at the same time, they’re afraid that they process will be too expensive and complex when the truth is that there are lawyers that know how to do this. So, there is a kind of hesitancy on the part of the community that you need to bust through to create change.

Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary. Follow him @bcstlsa or email him: editorinchief@thecontemporarygroup.com

This interview has been edited and condensed. The views expressed in this article are those of interviewer or the interviewee. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The photo above depicts Anna Crosslin at a press conference in September 2015 where the International Institute announced that Syrian refugees are welcome in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Anna Crosslin.

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