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If the Trump White House is relying on solidarity from evangelical voters heading into tight midterm elections, its refugee policy may be enough to upend much-needed support. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s September announcement of a 2019 cap of 30,000 refugees—down from a 45,000 limit in 2018—overruled objections from hundreds of church leaders and threatens the ongoing work of key Christian groups active in refugee resettlement.
The new ceiling is the lowest set since 1980, but the United States has been on a steadily downward trend for refugee admissions—from 207,000 in 1980 to 53,000 in 2017.
This year the United States is on track to admit less than half the 2017 number, perhaps 22,000. The number of Middle East Christians admitted to the United States—a key barometer for many evangelical advocacy groups—fell in 2018 by 98.5 percent from 2016.
In other words, even without the lowered cap, the executive branch has succeeded in slashing admissions to an all-time low. In practical terms, the Trump administration has ended what once was a reliable safe haven for Christians, the most persecuted religious group in the world.
By August this year, the United States had admitted as refugees six Syrian, 14 Iraqi, and only two Iranian Christians.
How did this happen? Key White House appointees reportedly circumvented Cabinet officers typically involved, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and Pompeo himself. All reportedly had argued for keeping the cap at 45,000.
Mattis, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and intelligence services, has called for maintaining a robust refugee program amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Accepting refugees helps the United States maintain relations with allies in war zones, and often is a crucial means of gathering intelligence.
For Christians the new cap falls hardest. By August this year, the United States had admitted as refugees six Syrian, 14 Iraqi, and only two Iranian Christians. Countries ranked highest for Christian persecution (using Open Doors’ World Watch List) saw a 90 percent drop in U.S. refugee admissions over the past two years.
Those numbers, plus the inordinate burden shouldered by churches and aid organizations caring for displaced people around the world, prompted more than 400 Christian leaders to sign on to an August letter to Pompeo and others, arguing to increase the refugee cap to 75,000—a standard cap over the last decade.
Should Trump follow through with the announced cap, not only may he pay a price for it on Nov. 6, his administration will be posturing over a system that’s not broken while leaving in disarray programs of mass immigration.
The cap applies only to those who fit a rigid definition for refugee, who flee the borders of their own country due to persecution based on race, religion, or political affiliation. These are not “illegals” or economic migrants. The cap does not apply to asylum-seekers on U.S. soil (though asylum-seekers may be able to pursue refugee status).
Refugees are selected by the State Department then vetted for admission by the Department of Homeland Security—a process tightened over the last three years, involving two security clearances and a dozen other steps and taking up to three years. Only then are refugees issued tickets to fly to the United States as documented arrivals.
At that point refugees are referred to the care of nine federally contracted nonprofit organizations that oversee their resettlement. Most of them are Christian and Jewish groups with long experience in refugee management and deep roots in their intended communities. This public-private partnership has been a model for the world.
Refugees, economists argue, are not a drain on the U.S. economy. According to a 2009 study by the American Enterprise Institute, refugees pay twice the amount in taxes they receive in benefits. And statistically they are not a terror threat: The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee is 1/1,000th the chance of being killed by a foreigner on a tourist visa.
It’s important for the U.S. government to screen foreigners of all types who enter the United States. At the same time, helping persecuted people is a mandate for Christians and a legacy for Americans. It’s a task the United States should not easily turn its back on.