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Safe haven no more

A slashed refugee cap virtually ends U.S. protection for persecuted Christians

Safe haven no more

An Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul sees his children off at Beirut International Airport ahead of their travel to the United States in 2017. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters/Newscom)

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.


  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Fri, 09/28/2018 01:34 am

    We do need to continue as a country that opens its arms to innocent people who have fled danger and persecution, doing our utmost to see them established in a healthy and safe life again.  We also need to be serious about what this involves, honest about how many we can do this with successfully, and encourage and support these efforts both in the public and private spheres.

    However, I'd like to respond to some statements in this article.

    It seems to me that the number of refugee admissions has dropped significantly for ALL people from certain countries, not Christians in particular.  Or has the percentage of Christians from those countries declined significantly as compared to the rest of the population received from those countries? 

    Is it not true that persecuted Christians have been a very small percentage of new admissions even when the caps were set much higher.  If so, is the only answer that we must accept greater numbers of refugees of all backgrounds in order that the miniscule percentage of Christians will become a more significant number?  Or could we boost that percentage of persecuted Christians being resettled here by acknowledging their unique challenges and the extreme dangers to them  from circumstances in certain societies?

    I have several other questions about statements in this article, such as:

    "...the United States has been on a steadily downward trend for refugee admissions—from 207,000 in 1980 to 53,000 in 2017."  Has it really been a smooth downward trend, or has it varied up and down due to different factors (end of Vietnam confllict, 9/11, Obama policies, etc.)?

    "In practical terms, the Trump administration has ended what once was a reliable safe haven for Christians"  Can we really say that the refugee resettlement program has been a "reliable safe haven" for Christians?  If so, why have so many persecuted Christians been left in limbo or in danger in second countries without really being resettled?

    "According to a 2009 study by the American Enterprise Institute, refugees pay twice the amount in taxes they receive in benefits."  Huh?  How do refugees without work for their first several months, or even years, in the US pay more in taxes than the benefits they receive to survive?  This must mean over a several year period including after they have become established?

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 09/29/2018 12:56 am

    " Huh?  How do refugees without work for their first several months, or even years, in the US pay more in taxes than the benefits they receive to survive?  This must mean over a several year period including after they have become established?"

    I don't know that going without work for years is standard for refugees--most come from a society where if you don't work, you don't eat. There aren't a lot of social programs in Iran or Syria. That doesn't encourage laziness.  It's quite possible that you're right, and that the Enterprise Institute is looking at the net benefit of refugees on the US economy over a longer period, after they've established themselves.  But there is also the possibility that the "benefits" for refugees are pretty low, and the downtime where they're not working pretty small as well.  After all, the US refugee system practically necessitates that the refugees already know someone--ideally a family member, but sometimes a church--who can provide housing.  With that usually comes connections, which can lead to quickly finding a job--especially since, again, these people are highly motivated to become earners.  It seems quite probable to me that a refugee might quickly outstrip whatever meager living allowance the State department provides.

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Sat, 09/29/2018 04:22 pm

    John, I did not say that it is standard for refugees to go without work for years, I said they often don't get work for months or years, which is accurate.  It is not an issue of their cultures having a better or worse work ethic.  How can you generalize?  They come from different cultures although, granted, most in recent years have come from a certain part of the world where, I would argue, the work ethic is no higher or lower than most anywhere else. 

    For your information, I am writing from the standpoint of someone who has had some part in the resettlement of hundreds of refugees.

    I simply want to know, in addition to the several other questions I raised about this article, what the quote that Mindy uses actually means.  The reality is that refugees, at least for some time after their arrival in the US, are NOT paying more in taxes than they have received in benefits.  They receive thousands of dollars in benefits just in their first few months, from initial cash amount to food stamps to monthly cash assistance, etc.  Granted, it is not much compared to the cost of living, but I don't see how this quote gives an accurate impression to the average reader, especially as regards the first years an average refugee is here.  This kind of quote needs to be clarified, not just thrown out to make a point.


  • VISTA48
    Posted: Fri, 09/28/2018 04:45 am

    As I understand it, there are some 200,000 refugee cases back-logged right now, which was one reason stated by Pompeo for reducing the cap. With our immigration system in dissarray, this really makes sense. What doesn't make sense is how refugees can pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. How is that possible?

    While I agree that helping persecuted people is a Christian duty, the US Government is not a Christian organization. Perhaps we, the Church, should be using our own time, talents and resources (including prayer) to relieve the suffering. 

    Donald Trump did not cause these problems, and they did not develope under his watch. Perhaps he should be given a little credit for trying to get things back under control instead of holding him to a Christian standard that, as far as I know, he has not committed himself to.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 09/29/2018 12:37 am

    Yes he did, and yes they did.  The refugee problem is not his doing, but the new cap is.  The article very clearly lays out that Trump capped the amount of refugees we're allowing in, and has limited the amount of people we're actually capable of help.  Trump isn't causing the refugees, he's the one saying "not our problem" and telling them to go die elsewhere.

    More to the point, why would that be important?  We're deserting our brothers overseas and the first impulse is to defend the president from accusations?  Seriously?  This is a real problem that needs fixing.  If Trump didn't cause it, he's in the best position to fix it.  Christians getting on his case about it is no more unchristian than when we got on Obama for not prioritizing Christrian refugees.

    Yes, we the Church, should definitely be using our own time, talents, and resources to relieve the suffering.  But that's hard when the government is actively in the way, as it is here.  There are christian families ready and willing to help their fellow brothers start a new life.  There are devout people who have little money or talents to give, but do have a home and a welcoming heart.  There are even people with family members among the refugees.  There is a great potential for the church to serve the refugees--and the cause of Christ--by bringing in the stranger and the refugee.

    But the government won't let us.  So we ought to speak out to "God's Chosen President" and remind him that he specifically promised to help Christian refugees.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 09/29/2018 12:45 am

    If we're going to call ourselves a Christian nation that doesn't help Christians, then either we need to argue that Christ was as selfish as we are, or admit that he told us to help our brother and need, and just confess that we're too scared to do it.  If we're going to call ourselves Christians in a nation that doesn't help Christians, then we need to reach out to that government to lessen its restrictions so that WE can help our brothers.  And if we're going to argue for the redemptive power of private, personal charity and it's advantage over monetary relief aid programs, then we need to take action to privately and personally bring the stranger to our home, and not simply content ourselves with sending them money and telling them to stay over where people are trying to kill them.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Tue, 10/02/2018 06:07 am

    I wrote a letter to our president asking him to do a better job of letting in those people who need a safe refuge. I got a form reply thanking me for my comments on "immigration policy", and telling me what a great job he's doing building a wall or something. Anyone else want to try? If enough of us write, he might eventually notice.