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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

A new low

U.S. refugee turnabout is cruel and unusual

A new low

Migrants arrive at the Port of Piraeus, near Athens. (Emre Tazegul/AP)

The Trump administration has announced a new ceiling for refugees admitted to the United States, starting with the new fiscal year Oct. 1. For 2020 the maximum number allowed will be 18,000 refugees, slashing a ceiling that for 40 years has averaged 95,000.

Historically the United States does not meet its own admissions ceiling, and it’s hard to see the Trump administration reaching even this new low. In 2018 with a ceiling of 45,000 refugees, admissions stood at 22,500, and admissions in 2019 will number about the same.

The new ceiling can only mean further cuts to a program where radical decreases already have proved harsh. The number of Iranian Christians resettled in the United States has fallen from 2,086 in 2016 to 66 in 2019. Religious minorities whose persecution qualifies them as refugees see their chance of winning U.S. protection fall anywhere from 60 percent to 95 percent. For Yazidis from Syria it’s been 100 percent—from 26 admitted in 2017 to 0 in each of the last two years.

To justify so radical a departure, the Trump administration says it will pursue “a new, practical focus on assisting refugees where they are concentrated” and will work harder using foreign assistance and other tools “to resolve the crisis points that drive displacement in the first place.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me in July, “Our mission set has been to drive better outcomes for them where they are.”

Numbers have fallen so low it’s forced key U.S. groups working with refugees to dismantle offices and let go expert workers.

Yet it’s hard to see where the Trump administration is fully engaged diplomatically and militarily to carry out that new strategy. Troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria are likely to spike—rather than ease—an exodus of civilians. 

U.S. diplomats rarely visit hot spots where refugees flee. And a business-as-usual bureaucracy in Washington isn’t primed for the Pompeo mission set. Our reporting in Iraq has shown how U.S. aid to restore communities devastated by ISIS has stalled now for two years (see “Help is [still, maybe] on the way,” Sept. 28), lowering refugee returns. 

Most refugees would welcome opportunities to remain in or near their homeland in safety, where language and food are familiar and friends aren’t far away. By definition they cannot go back without facing grave danger. That’s no justification for dismantling refugee admissions. 

Inevitably someone will respond, “We can’t take everyone.” That’s also a nonargument. At 95,000 the United States accepted at most .37 percent of the world’s 26 million refugees, a drop in the bucket. At 18,000 it will accept .07 percent, a swipe at a problem so faint as to be cruel. It ensures the United States no serious place at any table where the problems of mass migration are debated. 

The trend set by the Trump administration already has compounded hardships. Numbers have fallen so low it’s forced key U.S. groups working with refugees—like World Relief and Catholic Relief Services—to dismantle offices and let go expert workers. 

Families at refugee camps around the world have been stopped in process. Bethany Christian Service’s Nate Bult reported families who “slept outside the office that was going to bring them to the airport the next day and when workers arrived, they had to tell them that their flights were canceled.” 

World Relief’s Matthew Soerens argues also that “by further restricting refugee resettlement, the administration is exacerbating the humanitarian nightmare along our border.” 

Acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli confirmed that the United States would turn away persecuted Christians who, denied entry as refugees, try to seek asylum at the border: “We’ll turn them back,” he said.

That’s actually a violation of U.S. laws and treaties on asylum. But it underscores how Trump policy is a break from precedent, from law, and from an American system once infused with compassion rooted in Christian and Jewish teaching. 

The Trump administration advertises its commitment to religious freedom, hosting State Department ministerials and chastising foreign leaders who oppress religious minorities. But when it shuts the door to those most endangered for their faith, America looks to the rest of the world like the religious freedom it touts is for Western believers who live in safety.


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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Fri, 10/11/2019 07:48 pm

    Excellent article, Mindy. You describe in detail a heart rending turning away from God-mandated compassion for the refugee, and this by conservative Republican leadership, of all amazing things.

  • Jebby
    Posted: Tue, 10/29/2019 09:09 am

    Mindy Belz underlying assumption here is that entry into the United States is THE SOLUTION to the refugee crisis.  Specifically for persecuted Christians.  However, Jesus never commanded His followers to run from persecution.  Instead, He said things like "turn the other cheek", and "blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven".  James said "consider it all joy, my brethren when trials of various kind come".  It seems nice for a government to accept refugees, but to argue it is Biblical may be a stretch.  Christians should help, but maybe the Trump administration is right, we need to help where the problem is instead of allowing all the good people to flee...remember, all creation is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.  There is nowhere outside His reach.