TAMPA — Florida is no stranger to out-of-towners as anyone can see when the state’s population swells each winter. But the state also leads the nation in the number of people moving here after fleeing war-torn or politically unstable countries around the world.
Florida leads the nation in the number of refugees moving into the United States, more than double the number settling in second-place California. Since 2013, according to the federal government, 43,184 refugees resettled in Florida, compared to 16,714 in California, 15,002 in Texas and 8,879 in New York.
And one of every 10 refugees who resettles in the Sunshine State ends up in the Tampa Bay community, government and immigration officials say. Here, they find decent weather and an established system through which they learn the culture, find jobs and get on with the rest of their lives as either permanent residents or citizens.
Predictably, most are from Cuba, a number that increased when travel restrictions were lifted earlier this year, but Florida-bound refugees also come from other parts of the Caribbean and various Central and South American countries. Many come from the Middle East and Africa.
According to the federal government, 2014, Florida accepted 2,177 refugees from Cuba in 2014. Between Oct. 1, 2014, and May 31, 2015, statistics show, 2,236 Cuban refugees moved into Hillsborough and Pinellas counties alone.
Refugees are defined as people forced to flee their home country because of persecution or a legitimate fear of persecution. Their status as refugees gives them a more defined path to citizenship than immigrants.
Of the 67 counties in Florida, about 40 receive refugees on a regular basis, state officials say, with new arrivals resettling mostly in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward, Orange, Collier, Lee, and Pinellas counties.
Last year, 3,147 refugees and asylees resettled in the Tampa Bay area, with a majority moving into Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to numbers provided by the Florida Department of Children and Families’ Refugee Services. All get permanent resident status and most eventually seek citizenship.
The path to citizenship is the same for immigrants and refugees.
“Citizenship is straightforward,” said B. John Ovink, a Tampa immigration lawyer who counts among his clients some who have been granted refugee status. “Once they enter as refugees or are granted asylum, they apply for permanent residency, the proof of which is a green card. It’s pretty automatic unless something changes in their country of origin and they are forced to go back. But I haven’t seen that happen in the 22 years I’ve been practicing law.”
Last month, 36 immigrant refugees were sworn in as citizens in a special ceremony sponsored by the state.
“Once a refugee or immigrant gets a green card, five years later, if they’ve committed no crimes, they can take their citizenship tests,” Ovink said. “It’s nothing different from other immigrants. It’s not any easier for a refugee. They have to learn English, but so does everyone else.”
Tens of thousands of refugees settle in Florida each year through Florida’s Refugee Services, which oversees a myriad of programs for refugees, including employment, education, legal assistance and youth services.
The state program has helped nearly 14,000 refugees navigate the transition into a new culture over the past five years.
Nationally, about 70,000 refugees are admitted to the United States each year. Refugees are identified by the United Nations or the U.S. Department of State and are processed through the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.
From Oct. 1 through May 31, 2,238 refugees from 19 countries resettled in Hillsborough County, while 286 refugees moved into Pinellas County, according to state statistics.
“Florida settles 27,000 refugees, on average, every year,” said Taddese Fessehaye, community liaison manager with Refugee Services. The number ticks up some years and drops others, he said, but typically the 27,000 number has been constant over the past several years.
To get into the United States, several federal agencies screen refugees and then determine where they go. If they have relatives in the states, they can go there, or if there are established ethnic communities that match the background of the refugees, they go there.
The placement is handled through the federal government and non-profit charitable agencies which work with the State Department, Fessehaye said. Those agencies have more than 300 affiliates across the nation that assist in finding refugees homes and help their assimilation into U.S. culture.
The state Refugee Services program is primarily funded by the federal government, he said. That money, along with donated funds that come through non profits, is used to get refugees and their families set up.
“It’s a public-private partnership,” Fessehaye said. Ideally, refugees become assimilated as quickly as possible.
“We do the best we can to help them find jobs from the moment they get here,” he said, though there are stipends available to help out if jobs aren’t readily available.
Many of the refugees finding homes in the Tampa Bay area are Muslim because the region has an established Muslim community. Fessehaye said refugees are not categorized by their religion and it’s difficult to say how many Muslim refugees are relocating in the United States or Florida.
“Even through people come from Muslim countries, it doesn’t mean they are Muslims,” Fessehaye said. “If you take Egypt for example, most who fled Egypt are Christians, Coptic Christians. It’s the same with Iraqis. They not all are Muslims. Many are Christians.”
Tampa Bay’s Muslim community helps assimilate Muslim refugees into American culture.
The Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area is listed among the organizations helping refugees here. Beginning in August, the society will offer a new program with classes in citizenship and civics, English as a second language and a primer on services available to refugees.
“For the last five to seven years, we at ISTABA Sligh Masjid have been facing a rapidly growing number of refugees who have moved to Tampa for many reasons,” said a recent newsletter published by the society. “Some of these reasons are the relatively low cost of living, weather, as well as the religious welfare of the numerous Masjids, Islamic schools, and the different community centers.”
The newsletter, which sought donations from the group’s members, said local refugees, some of whom are disabled, “face very tough situations during their transition into the new land, new language, and the completely different new life style. They need all possible help from us.”
The federal government picks up the tab for refugee health care. In Florida, that service is administered through the state Department of Health.
During the last fiscal year, the health department in Hillsborough County gave medical assistance to 2,504 refugees. Between Jan. 1 and June 18 this year, 1,478 refugees sought aid at the department, said Robyn Pasto, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Health Department’s refugee program.
Though the county health department will have to absorb a cut of about $300,000 because of Gov. Rick Scott’s recent budget vetoes, the refugee program won’t be affected because its funding comes from the U.S. Department of State.
Pasto said the Hillsborough Health Department’s refugee program’s budget for the coming year is nearly $2 million.
Helping refugees resettle in the region takes every penny, Pasto said, and the trend doesn’t appear to be easing any time soon.
“Across the state,” she said, “we are seeing increases in the number of refugees.”