Recently Lora Ries, chief of staff of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, penned a Hill opinion piece (“Refugee admissions: Safety and redevelopment, not a number,” Oct. 2) defending the Trump administration’s decision to admit a mere 18,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2020. While I appreciate Ries’s effort to explain the administration’s decision, her case falls flat on a host of levels.
Ries argues that focusing on the annual refugee admission number requires one to ignore the humanitarian picture. Nothing could be further from the truth. With nearly 26 million refugees worldwide with no imminent hope of returning to their homelands, it is an abrogation of America’s role as an international humanitarian leader to squeeze the refugee admission pipeline to a mere trickle.
Ries is also incorrect in saying refugee advocates “profit” from the refugee resettlement process. While we do have contracts with the government, we carry out this work to support the ministry of welcome. Indeed, it is the communities who welcome refugees who benefit. They benefit because refugees open businesses, revitalize towns, build friendships with their new neighbors, join U.S. citizen families through marriage, and are productive members of their communities. Multiple studies demonstrate that refugees are economic contributors and job creators.
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is one of the most successful public-private partnerships ever established by our government. Working together with the State Department and state and local governments, community non-profit organizations, volunteers, and the faith community collaborate to provide refugees with the tools they need to build new lives on our shores: housing, community orientation, English-language training and job placement. Every day, faithful Episcopalians give of their time, talent and treasure to help refugees integrate and thrive in their communities.
I am particularly disconcerted by Ries’s conflation of asylum seekers and refugees. Both vulnerable populations merit our concern and attention. Both deserve legal due process and respect from U.S. government authorities. It is in no way necessary for the federal government to pit one vulnerable group against another. As we consider our humanitarian response to both the situation at the southern border and the international refugee crisis, we should remember that the United States has the capacity to process asylum claims while continuing our historic commitment to admitting a healthy number of refugees each year. Congress established the refugee resettlement program for a reason. It is incumbent upon the Trump administration to faithfully enact Congress’s will and maintain this vital program, rather than chipping away at it until nothing remains but a shallow husk.
No one expects the U.S. government to “absorb an unlimited number of refugees.” The historic annual average of refugee admissions in the 40-year history of the program has been 95,000, hardly radical given that the U.S. welcomes more than one million legal immigrants each year. The refugee admissions number has gone up or down slightly over the years, depending upon international need and each administration’s priorities. Nonetheless, presidents of both parties have recognized the importance of refugee resettlement to this country’s strategic and national security interests.
Yet over four decades we have never seen anything like what the Trump administration has done. Not even in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks did refugee admissions drop to such a low number. If we could continue generously welcoming refugees in the wake of the greatest domestic security challenge in modern history, we surely can continue doing so today. The neglect I fear is that of the United States, neglecting to uphold its historic position as an international exemplar of generosity and moral leadership on refugee resettlement.
Most importantly for us as Christians, we want the nation in which God has placed us to reflect the Lord’s call to welcome the stranger and open our hearts to those in deed. The religious community has been doing just that in good-faith partnership with the federal government for four decades. We simply want to continue doing so, and we are ready to work with the Trump administration if they will give us the opportunity to do so.
Rushad L. Thomas is a migration policy advisor for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.