The next steps in the fight to stop Trump's anti-refugee agenda
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Amid a dire global refugee crisis, President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE has stopped at nothing to demonize refugees and asylum seekers and destroy the systems our country put in place to protect them. Ignoring his own background as the grandson of an immigrant from Germany, he has poisoned attitudes toward people fleeing violence and persecution, and has drastically--and illegally--constricted the operation of the 1980 Refugee Act.

What’s at stake is the battle for our nation’s soul, and those of us who care about protecting the persecuted must join together and use every tool we have to combat Trump’s fearmongering and deceit, lifting up the voices of the refugees among us.

That’s why I’m proud to be a part of the newly created Voice for Refuge Action Fund, the first national 501(c)4 organization focused on refugees. Together we will work to upend malignant anti-refugee politics. Together we will put a human face on the refugee issue—by giving Americans a chance to see refugee faces and hear their stories—and the stories and feelings of their neighbors and the communities they live in. It is time for refugees to have a place at the table: to share their desire to give back to the country that welcomed them, to demand fairness and truth from our elected leaders and to have a voice in the policies that affect their lives.


Forty years ago, in response to the refugee crisis in Vietnam where more than a million people were forced to flee the country because of their work for the U.S. during the war and because of ethnic cleansing, we determined that our nation had to act. The United States needed not just to welcome many of those refugees—and we took more than 750,000—and provide leadership to persuade other countries to resettle refugees too, but we had to create a solid and permanent legal foundation for the admission of refugees to our country.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) led the effort in the Senate and I authored the bill in the House. With overwhelming bipartisan support the Refugee Act of 1980 was adopted. It put the United States on record—for all the world to see—that providing sanctuary to the persecuted was going to be an integral and important part of our country's policies and values.

For decades, American communities have welcomed these new neighbors and have been enriched by the economic contributions refugees bring, with their strong work ethic and resilient spirit.

Sadly, from his racist and xenophobic initial Muslim and refugee bans to his more recent 80 percent cut to refugee admissions—the most drastic of any president in 40 years—Trump has slammed America’s door on the world’s most vulnerable. And his lies about refugees have misinformed the American people. Contrary to Trump’s baseless rhetoric, refugees already undergo “extreme vetting”—if the Department of Homeland Security and our intelligence agencies can’t confirm who they are, then they’re denied entry to our country.

Refugees who remain unsafe in the countries they have fled to and those who have desperate medical needs, including those already vetted and approved, have been left with little to no chance of resettlement here in the U.S. Family members of refugees who are already here, who were promised that they could join them in a few months, have now been separated from them for years. Parents from children, spouses from each other.


Advocates meeting with policy makers is important and must continue, but we also must do more. We must take up the hard work of holding our elected leaders accountable and change who is making these life or death decisions about refugees. We must work with former refugees and their friends and neighbors as well as Americans of good will everywhere to build real political power.

Representation matters. In order to ensure that our values are reflected in governmental policy, we must help former refugees and pro-refugee candidates running for office at the local, state, and national level. We must show our elected leaders there are real consequences to supporting Trump’s racist anti-refugee agenda. We must galvanize former refugees and their communities to become more civically engaged in a myriad of ways: voting, running for office, and making their voices heard in the halls of power.

Take Fatima Dirie, a former refugee from Somalia who has a real shot at winning a seat in Utah’s state Legislature. And state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, who helped resettle a Syrian refugee family in 2015 and is running for re-election in the Georgia state Legislature. These leaders are reclaiming America’s legacy as a beacon of hope and standing as a powerful force against bigotry and fear-mongering. We need to support them and others who follow in their footsteps.

Refugee resettlement organizations have always been focused on setting refugees up for success, helping them integrate, thrive and rebuild their lives in the United States. While many work to educate policy makers about who refugees are, they have never had to dive into the political boxing ring.

But now, everyone who supports refugee rights must fight back. We must show our elected leaders that we will not sit back and watch our nation’s values wither away. Failing to would be telling our forebears, including my own mother and her family, that they shouldn’t have been welcomed by the United States. That their lives weren’t valuable. That refugees like them can be turned away without anyone raising objection. That’s not who we are as a nation. Forty years ago we did do better—and we can do so again.

Elizabeth Holtzman served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was an original sponsor of The Refugee Act of 1980. She is an inaugural board member of Voice for Refuge Action Fund.