Despite the concerns and objections voiced by dozens of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, from faith and civic leaders, and by individual Americans, the Trump administration just lowered the life-saving refugee resettlement program to an all-time low.
The final refugee admissions number that set the goal for the new fiscal year at only 30,000 was signed by President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE Thursday with little fanfare and hardly any media attention. If the administration meets this historically low number, the “most generous nation in the world” will have resettled just .001 percent of the 24.5 million refugees that the United Nations has identified as in need of protection. This is not only the lowest goal in the history of the U.S. program - the average has been 95,000 - but puts U.S. resettlement, as a proportion of population, well behind Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
While there may be little hope of convincing this administration to increase the refugee admissions numbers—which it is still within its power to do—we must demand that it make every effort to maximize the number of refugees who are admitted over the next 12 months. The administration has said it set the 30,000 number based on what it sees the U.S. has the capacity to do. Now it must make good on its own words.
Resettlement is about more than just numbers, it represents lives. And as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden Rand Paul blocks quick vote on House-passed B Iron Dome funding MORE (D-N.J.) stated last week, resettling refugees is also a key tool for diplomatic relations and U.S. national security. As the global displacement crisis worsens, important allies that are hosting millions of refugees look to the United States to provide leadership and assistance. Interpreters and translators for the U.S. military whose lives are at risk because they helped our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan wonder if we will keep our commitments to protect them. If we fail to achieve even this year’s modest goal for refugee admissions, we only tarnish our country’s humanitarian reputation and cause others around the world to question our credibility.
Here at home, there is no shortage of Americans who are willing and able to help refugees. American communities from coast to coast have expressed an eagerness to welcome refugee families and help them rebuild their lives. Refugee resettlement agencies report that there are far more volunteers than they have the ability to utilize because refugee admissions are so few.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees stuck at various stages of the U.S. resettlement process. Congress has allocated enough resources for the State Department to process far more than 30,000 refugees this year. Tens of thousands of refugees waiting in desperate situations could be ready to travel in a matter of weeks if the administration would follow through on the needed steps to complete their processing.
Unfortunately, over the last year we have seen the opposite of progress when it comes to refugee processing and security clearances. The essential work of vetting refugees has slowed to a trickle and the cases of thousands of refugees remain in bureaucratic limbo. The Trump administration has often raised security concerns to justify these repeated delays. These excuses ring hollow considering that refugees were already the most vetted individuals entering the U.S. even before the administration’s “extreme vetting” procedures were put in place. Every prior administration, including the George W. Bush administration following the unprecedented challenges posed after 9/11, managed to keep the resettlement program operating even as enhanced security procedures were instituted.
Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenFar-left bullies resort to harassing, shaming Kyrsten Sinema — it won't work Ex-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides MORE also point to asylum-seekers arriving in the U.S. as a reason that less can be done to process refugees abroad waiting for resettlement. Yet past administrations, Republican and Democratic, managed to keep both vital of these humanitarian programs functioning at the same time. It is not unreasonable to expect that by now, this administration also should also be able to carry-out asylum adjudications and robust resettlement procedures as the U.S. has successfully done for decades.
It is critical that Congress, the media, and the public hold the administration accountable on meeting the minimal refugee resettlement goal it has now set forth for our nation. Even with these minimal numbers, the U.S. resettlement program can still save thousands of lives, uphold our American legacy of standing up for the persecuted, make manifest U.S. support to refugee hosting countries, and honor faith groups and local communities across America who believe aiding refugees is a spiritual and moral obligation.
Reaching a hand out to help refugees has always reflected the best in us as a nation. So let us see that each and every one of the 30,000 refugees—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers—are fully processed and allowed to rebuild a life here in safety. There is no doubt this goal is eminently achievable, if there is will to do so.
Larry Yungk is a former Senior Resettlement Officer with the UNHCR. Wilmot Collins is a former refugee, and the current Mayor of Helena, Montana. Both serve as members of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program Advisory Committee.