Some good news: On February 4, 2021, years after I wrote the article below, newly-elected President Biden announced that the U.S. would raise the number of refugees admitted to our country from 15,000 per year to 125,000 annually starting on October 1.
Refugee resettlement is a small, but very important part of our country’s immigration laws and policies.
Many refugees experience unbelievable hardships as they are forced to flee their homes, often leaving family members behind. Most refugees are women and children. Many die trying to escape war and persecution. Sometimes, they have family members who were killed by the governments in their countries. Many have undergone arrests, imprisonment and even torture due to their political opinions, their religious beliefs or their ethnicities.
While there are over 25 million refugees worldwide, the U.S. resettles just a tiny fraction of them. In fact, less than 1% of the total number of displaced people in the world will ever be resettled to one of 36 current resettlement countries. In 2016, the U.S. admitted more refugees than all of the other countries combined. But all this has changed, and changed dramatically.
The President sets an annual cap on the number of refugees who can be admitted to the US. The actual number who are admitted to the US is often less than the cap. In 2017, President Trump lowered the cap from 110,000 to 45,000. In 2018, he set it at 30,000, a historic low.
By the end of 2017, our country had resettled only about 33,000 refugees, while other nations collectively resettled a total of 69,000. When the population size of the nations in which they are resettled is taken into account, Canada was the resettlement leader in 2017 at 725 refugees resettled per one million residents, followed by Australia (618), and Norway (528). In comparison, the United States resettled 102 refugees per one million.
Despite this, the website of the U.S. State Department continues to state:
“The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership. Since 1975, the United States has accepted more than 3.3 million refugees for permanent resettlement – more than any other country in the world. The United States will continue to prioritize the admission of the most vulnerable refugees while upholding the safety and security of the American people.”
Way back when I worked for the INS, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Refugee Act of 1980, which provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Under U.S. law, a “refugee” is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.
When he became President in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan vowed to “continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and to “continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”
Since the 1980 law was enacted, the US has admitted over 3 million refugees. Many of these were refugees from Communist countries including Russia, Cuba and Kosovo. Our country has been truly inspiring in resettling refugees.
The refugee admissions process can take up from 18 to 24 months, and includes a review of applications by the State Department and other federal agencies, in-person interviews, health screenings and, for many, cultural orientations.
As the number of refugees hit an all-time high in 2018, the refugee cap in the US sank to an all-time low.
Interestingly, criticism of the latest cut in the number of refugees has come not just from the President’s opponents, but from some of his staunchest supporters. In August 2018, the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter to DOS Secretary Pompeo, DHS Secretary Nielsen and Ambassador Brownback which stated:
“We’re writing to express our deep concern about the impact on international religious freedom of recent changes in the U.S. refugee resettlement program…”
“During the first half of 2016, 1,574 Middle Eastern Christian refugees were admitted from the region (Middle East), but in the first half of 2018, the United States has admitted only twenty-three, a decline of 98.5 percent. In short, cuts to our refugee admission program affect all persecuted religious minorities, but these cuts significantly impact our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The fact that one of the recipients of the letter was US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback stirred up a memory for me. When Senator Brownback was the Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, I organized a meeting with him and several immigration attorneys.
I asked Senator Brownback about his views on immigration policy, and I remember him telling me that our country was not admitting enough refugees.
I agreed with him then, and I agree even more so today.
Resettlement of Refugees – Additional Resources
- The U.S. Sends an Unwelcoming Signal to Refugees
- US Department of State – Refugee Admissions Program
- How America’s Refugee Policy is Damaging to the World and to Itself
- Video in Upper Left Corner of Screen is “Beyond the Borders” Composed by My Friend Susan Cohen, Esq