On Nov. 12, at a virtual event celebrating the 40th anniversary of Jesuit Refugee Service, President-elect Joe Biden doubled down on his promise to increase presidential determination for annual refugee admissions to 125,000. That pledge marks a big increase from the record low of 15,000 refugee admissions President Donald Trump had set for the 2021 fiscal year.
And that number isn’t only low compared to the past few years; it’s low compared to the 300,000 refugees who came to the United States between 1975 and 1979 via presidential action — revealing the need to revisit laws restricting refugee admissions. The Refugee Act of 1980, which the Senate passed unanimously, raised the annual ceiling for refugees from 17,400 to 50,000, created a process for reviewing and adjusting the refugee ceiling to meet emergencies, and required annual consultation between Congress and the president.
Forty years later, the all-time low numbers of refugees resettled in the United States is concerning. But, according to refugee resettlement experts, that number is a symptom of a larger, more alarming problem: Refugee resettlement has become a partisan issue.
“Tragically, in the last four years, we have seen this program become politically divisive and a lightning rod for no good reason, except for scoring political points,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). “… My hope is that we can have a serious discussion that could help insulate the program from the political whims of a future executive branch that would once again seek to use refugees as a political cudgel.”
According to Vignarajah, President Trump’s decision to lower the ceiling for refugee resettlement so dramatically during his time in office led to local resettlement office closures, including 17 of LIRS’ 48 affiliate programs.
At the end of 2016, there were approximately 325 local resettlement offices operating across the country. By the end of 2019, more than 100 had to either shut their doors or suspend resettlement services, according to a report by Refugee Council USA.
“Part of the discussion we need to have in the coming months and years ahead is how do we create a more predictable and bipartisan system that potentially sets a refugee floor, in addition to allowing the president to establish a ceiling,” said Vignarajah, who came to the U.S. with her family as a refugee in the late '70s.
Along with the eight other organizations that contract with the State Department to resettle refugees in communities across the country, LIRS is taking steps to make bipartisan support of refugee resettlement a reality, in part, by doubling its communications staff in an effort to dispel myths around resettlement.
"We’re in the business of storytelling so people understand who a refugee is, and why they pick up with the limited belongings they have and come halfway across the world,” Vignarajah said. “In this kind of environment, we need to do a better job of communicating who we are and what we do and who refugees are.”
According to Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the conversation around refugee resettlement has become “toxified” over the past four years.
“There’s a really important messaging piece to this,” Steinberg told Sojourners. “For the last four years, the White House’s obsession with demolishing refugee protections — whether it’s been the resettlement program or the asylum system — has gotten a lot of the airwaves. It has sucked up a lot of air in the room. We need somebody in the White House, President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris, to speak to the value of welcome, to begin to help change the narrative.”
Steinberg said that Refugee Council USA, which comprises 29 U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations including Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, HIAS, and LIRS, is in the early stages of conversation with the Biden-Harris team about following through to make Biden’s pledge to dramatically raise the refugee ceiling a reality.
Among their requests of the incoming Biden administration:
- Inform Congress of their intent to welcome 125,000 refugees and deliver a report to Congress that makes a case for increased appropriations for refugee resettlement.
- Set the presidential determination with slots allocated according to regional needs, which allows the resettlement effort greater flexibility in meeting refugees’ needs.
- Invite experts at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security into the larger discussion on refugees.
- Appoint a senior-level White House coordinator for refugee resettlement.
- Immediately signal to the United Nations the intent to resume United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees referrals domestically and internationally so that they can devise a process quickly and efficiently.
Bethany Christian Services, which partners with the U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops, LIRS, Church World Service, and other resettlement organizations, sent a 6-page document to the Biden-Harris transition team listing priorities for resettlement and scheduled a meeting with the faith outreach team.
Nathan Bult, Bethany’s senior vice president of public and government affairs, said the organization has “doubled down” on efforts to give their clients opportunities to share their stories with local news, national media, and government officials.
“Until recent years, refugee resettlement … was not a controversial program, so there wasn’t a need to ask refugees to tell their story to help educate Americans about who they are and why they fled and about what they want and desire in life, which is safety and an opportunity to thrive,” Bult told Sojourners.
In 1980, the Refugee Act was passed to “establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees,” as the first page of the Act reads. Forty years later, as resettlement organizations rebuild and prepare to resettle many more refugees than they have in recent years, advocates are hoping for the same result that the Refugee Act of 1980 sought to achieve: uniformity and stability in what has become a volatile system.