Now is no time to cut refugee numbers

The United States has long been a safe harbor for refugees. That should not change based on the whims of a president.

But the scale and scope with which the U.S. continues to close its borders to refugees is unprecedented, and only getting worse amidst a global crisis.

Just last month, the administration announced plans to limit refugee admittance to historically low new numbers. Current law requires consultation with House and Senate Judiciary Committees leadership by Sept. 30 prior to setting this number. But this administration has never cared much what the law says.


For years, the U.S. has welcomed some 95,000 refugees annually. The recent Trump administration announcement of 15,000 refugees for fiscal year 2021 is a new low. In the midst of an aggressive pandemic and record-breaking peoples displaced by war, violence and natural disasters, this cannot be our national position.

There are numerous legal and economic reasons why this is the case. First, there is an international legal obligation to do just that. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol require it. Congress itself required it via the Refugee Act of 1980.

Furthermore, refugees benefit economic progress. Studies show more refugees do not hurt the labor market but rather spur economic growth. For example, migrants engage in entrepreneurship at higher rates than locals do. In 2015, 13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs with 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies founded by refugees, immigrants or their children.

Couple that with the contribution refugees make in their communities as essential workers during times of emergency. Right now, during the ongoing COVID response, more than 176,000 refugees serve in the health care field on top of roughly 175,000 working in the food supply chain. But human beings should not and cannot be measured by economic output alone. For more than legal or economic reasons, turning our backs to refugees is denying their dignity, their right to flee danger, and most importantly their right to live. 

Such low refugee resettlement program numbers, and policies such as the “Safe Third Country” that keep away those in need, demonstrate a callous response to humanitarian issues. The world over, there are more than 29 million refugees for whom the COVID pandemic is a crisis on top of a crisis. Refugee camps from Yemen to Bangladesh and all parts in-between are some of the most densely populated and vulnerable areas in the world, with refugees living there dependent on relief aid for mere survival.

What is clear is that in the closing months of 2020, the United States has a moral responsibility to welcome the historical number of refugees (95,000) — at the border or overseas — out of the millions worldwide currently displaced and without a home. There is so much more the U.S. can and should do for refugees. But that would be a good start. Unlike slamming the door on those who are fleeing for their lives, which is what is happening now.

Marisa León-Gómez Sonet is the immigration and refugee program assistant at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). Previously with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN) working on issues regarding foreign policy toward Latin America, human rights, and immigration, she now works towards a more humane and dignified immigration and refugee system.