Mysterious Retirement of Lavinia Limon at U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Raises Questions About Federal Program

US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants President and CEO Lavinia Limon speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting September 29, 2015 in New York. AFP PHOTO/JOSHUA LOTT (Photo credit should read Joshua LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
Joshua LOTT/AFP/Getty

For two and a half decades, Lavinia Limon has been the face of refugee resettlement. First she served as director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement from 1993 to 2000, then, since 2001, as the chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

This is one of the nine voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) collectively paid more than $1 billion annually to resettle refugees through the federal refugee admissions program.

In October, USCRI posted a letter from Gene DeFelice, chairman of its board of directors, on its website stating that Limon was retiring as the organization’s chief executive after more than a dozen years at its helm. The usually publicity hungry organization chose not to issue a press release announcing Limon’s retirement, and it was not until this Thursday–three months later–that anyone reported on the development.

“Lavinia Limon, CEO and President of USCRI has decided to retire from USCRI effective October 13, 2017. The Board appreciates Ms. Limon’s over four decades of service to refugees and immigrants, and her contribution to USCRI, thanks her, and wishes her the best in her future endeavors,” DeFelice said in the letter.

DeFelice said that Eskinder Negash, the organization’s vice chairman, would serve as acting chief executive while the board undertook a search for a new permanent chief executive:

The Board of Directors has appointed Mr. Eskinder Negash as acting Chief Executive Officer.  The Board is currently in the process of conducting a national search, which includes the consideration of Mr. Negash.

Mr. Negash, a refugee himself, has devoted his entire distinguished career to addressing the needs of refugees and immigrants. Mr. Negash brings nearly 40 years of experience working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and managing non-profit social service agencies. Prior to joining USCRI, Mr. Negash served as Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Administration of Children and Families, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2009-2015. With a budget of over 1.5 billion, the ORR is the largest government-funded refugee resettlement organization in the world.  During Mr. Negash’s tenure, the ORR provided essential services to more than 850,000 vulnerable people through its Resettlement Program, Rescue & Restore anti-trafficking campaign, and the Unaccompanied Children’s Program.

Mr. Negash’s tenure at ORR ended abruptly in December 2014, as Breitbart News reported:

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Eskinder Negash, an Eritrean refugee on Limon’s USCRI staff, as director of ORR. When Negash resigned abruptly in December 2014, he went back to USCRI, where he now serves as Vice President of Global Development.

Revenues at USCRI, his once and future employer,  increased significantly while Negash served as director of the ORR. In FY 2006, USCRI revenues were $19 million. By 2015, they had grown to $50 million, more than 90 percent of which came from “government grants.”

ORR’s budget grew from $492 million in FY 2006 to $1.5 billion in 2014.

Refugee Resettlement Watch, writing in the middle of Negash’s tenure at ORR, noted his failure to provide Congress with annual reports in a timely manner, a statutory requirement:

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), is in complete disarray as regards its legally mandated requirement to report to Congress every year on how refugees are doing and where the millions of tax dollars are going that run the program. The last (and most recent) annual report to be sent to Congress is the 2008 report—so they are out of compliance for fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011. . . (The lack of reports for recent years signals either bureaucratic incompetence and disregard for the law, or, causes one to wonder if there is something ORR is hiding.)

The unusual circumstances surrounding Ms. Limon’s retirement prompted Breitbart News to ask USCRI communications director Stacie Blake several questions on Thursday about the former CEO’s departure:

1. Why did the announcement of Ms. Limon’s retirement from USCRI not include a statement from her?

2. Why did USCRI not issue the announcement as a press release?

3. Was the employment of Ms. Limon’s brother, Peter Limon, director of business development, also terminated at the same time?

4. Was Ms. Limon’s retirement forced by the USCRI Board of Directors, as sources have told Breitbart News?

5. Was Ms. Limon’s retirement caused by concerns or ongoing investigations–either internal or external–over financial irregularities at USCRI?

Ms. Blake has not responded to our inquiries.

Limon’s departure highlights the instability facing the refugee resettlement industry, and in particular, the nine large voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) who have historically received $1 billion annually in federal funding.

With the plunging number of refugee arrivals under the Trump administration, revenues have dropped precipitously.

USCRI, which was at the center of a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to place more than 100 Syrian refugees in the small community of Rutland, Vermont under secretive circumstances and facing strong opposition from a large portion of the community earlier this year, is not the only VOLAG experiencing issues with top management.

Turmoil at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, like USCRI, one of the top nine VOLAGs, was also in the news recently.

“A source with first-hand knowledge tells Breitbart News that financial mismanagement, fraud, and harassment are so widespread at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the country’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, that the board has called for an external investigation of CEO Linda Hartke,” Breitbart News reported in November.

Breitbart News continued:

An internal email obtained by Breitbart News confirms the source’s claim of an external investigation at LIRS.

“I will also likely ask the Board of Directors to table the CEO Review until we have the report of the investigation,” LIRS Board Chairman Michael Rinehart said of CEO Linda Hartke in an email sent on September 13, 2017, to Evelyn Soto, named to the board in 2017 as a representative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA], and Evan Moilan, the board member who chairs the audit committee.

Rinehart wrote in a follow-up email on September 14, 2017, “The Executive Committee convened and agreed to an investigation. I have spoken to Linda. The investigation team has formed. They will meet next week in St. Louis. I have the names of three law firms with whom to talk. Things are moving fast.”

As of January, the results of this internal investigation at LIRS have not yet been reported.

While there has been no public indication that any similar investigation is under way at USCRI, the VOLAG appears to be in need of additional financial resources, like all refugee resettlement organizations under the Trump administration.

USCRI is one of several resettlement organizations that have turned to private sources to help keep their operations running, as revenues from the federal government, which pays VOLAGs on a per refugee arrival basis, continue to decline.

In FY 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, 84,995 refugees arrived. In FY 2017, the number of arriving refugees declined to 53,716. Over the first three months and two weeks of FY 2018, the number of refugees has dropped to 5,524, an annualized rate of 19,000.

In December, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints contributed $1.2 million to USCRI over a two year period.

The Deseret News reported the story:

ARLINGTON, Virginia — With a recent gift totaling $600,000 in cash and commodities, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is expressing appreciation to the LDS Church for its combined, two-year $1.2 million contribution of money and in-kind donations.

“At a time of our greatest need for support, we are grateful to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all its members for remembering those in need, specifically the refugees and immigrants we service,” said Eskinder Negash, USCRI’s acting chief executive officer in a new release this week.

“We will make good use of these resources to welcome the stranger and help our clients to seek new opportunities and rebuild their lives.”

For more than a century, the national organization has helped those in forced or voluntary migration worldwide by seeking to protect their rights, aid in their transitions and temper their vulnerabilities.

The VOLAGs and their associated local refugee resettlement agencies are pulling out all the stops to maintain their businesses.

In late January, they plan to use some of their remaining resources–almost all of which continue to come from the federal government–to protest the Trump administration’s refugee admissions policies and demand it allow more refugees into the country, thereby increasing their own revenues.

The Refugee Council USA–the lobbying arm of the VOLAGs and refugee resettlement agencies–is planning a “No Refugee Ban No Muslim Ban Week of Action” from January 27 to February 3.

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