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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

A historic finish

Trump administration sets refugee cap at new low

Few can boast of opening a new business during a pandemic, but Mohamad Hafez did just that. This summer he launched Pistachio, a French baroque, salon-styled coffee shop in West Haven, Conn., serving Turkish coffee, cold brew, and baklava. 

The architect-turned-artist-turned-barista could be your classic millennial—an overachiever with good taste, fitted suits, and bookish glasses. He designed a 48-story office tower in Houston’s central business district. When construction began in 2014, it was one of the largest spec projects in the world.

Hafez checks other boxes too: He is Arab, Muslim, Syrian, and a forced migrant. After the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, those markers meant extra scrutiny for U.S. entry, and understandable suspicion. Congress and federal agencies have since beefed up security and vetting protocols. Most refugees now spend at least 2-3 years in the United States’ admission process, awaiting multiple interviews, security screenings, and health checks. Hafez spent eight years in limbo but now is a U.S. citizen.

Despite the enhancements, President Donald Trump has continued to incite fear over “an influx of refugees,” bypassing Congress and upending private resettlement agencies that partner with the government. Refugee admissions have hit historic lows, with fewer than 11,000 refugees admitted during the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1. 

Trump also bypassed statutory mandates for consultation with Congress in setting annual caps on refugee admissions. On Sept. 30 the administration sent its report to Capitol Hill, leaving no time as the new fiscal year began the next day. It set a 2021 cap at 15,000 refugees—the lowest in history. That’s down from 2020’s 18,000 cap. (Actual intake over the last four years has hovered around half the annual cap.)

Dozens of agencies and churches involved in refugee resettlement—including the National Association of Evangelicals and Bethany Christian Services—petitioned the Trump administration to return the cap to 95,000 refugees in 2021. That’s the 40-year average limit set under five presidents since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. 

Despite broad support from evangelical voters, on this issue Trump has moved decidedly against them, leaving persecuted Christians in the lurch. State Department figures show a 66 percent decline in admissions since 2016 from the top 11 countries where Christians face “extreme persecution.” For believers escaping Pakistan or Iran, the shutdown has been near total—a 90-95 percent drop in refugee admissions.

Thus 120,000 refugees await U.S. resettlement: refugees in camps, and displaced people who cannot easily reverse the process to apply for resettlement to other countries. Further, the State Department announced on Oct. 1 plans to change or eliminate on Oct. 9 publicly available refugee admissions data reports—handicapping Congress, the media, and advocacy groups in watchdogging the process. 

The outlook for Mohamad Hafez’s family is typical for Christians and Muslims. His parents live in the U.S., but his three siblings each live in different countries.

“We always think of refugees in the abstract,” he said in a 2018 TED Talk. Hafez began creating artistic miniatures, tableaus re-creating household scenes from war-ravaged Syria, all set inside open suitcases to symbolize the plight of those uprooted by nearly a decade of war. The exhibition, titled Unpacked: Refugee Baggage, has criss-crossed the globe, paired with audio recordings of actual refugee stories.

“There’s a perception out there that immigrants and refugees leave no established lives behind. They have nothing to lose, and they are coming across to take people’s wealth and jobs.”

But many like Hafez are trained professionals who love their homelands. At a Greek camp in 2016, I met a refugee family that owned three houses in Syria and a prosperous construction company. They had lost everything, and their daughter nearly drowned while they fled in a boat. They cannot return to their bombed-out neighborhoods without facing danger and poverty.

Refugee policy doesn’t have to be a politicized issue. Unlike stymied immigration policy, the 1980 Refugee Act has been modified under both parties’ leadership. Lawmakers and presidents have found common cause in caring for the exiles or sojourners Scripture repeatedly highlights. Doing so can enhance both our national security and our witness as citizens and churches.

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  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Mon, 10/12/2020 12:26 pm

    Thank you, Mindy, for this report. I'll have to watch that TED Talk.

    Evangelicals, in addition to abortion, can we not add persecuted Christian refugee admission to your list of demands for a President? Can we not pick up this issue too? Obviously, character no longer matters.

  • TH
    Posted: Mon, 10/12/2020 02:57 pm

    Thank you for your article. I became a naturalized citizen in 2017. I started the process in 2000. I'm married to a wonderful christian man from PA. I'm very grateful for my American citizenship. My husband and i met in Africa as single missionaries. Living overseas is very difficult and different. My understanding is one of the reasons why Trump admin. have lowered the numbers for refugees and adoptions is they want to keep people nearer to their home countries and to facilitate those efforts so they do not have to go through so much trauma moving to a place that is so far away and completely different - language, culture, architecture, climate, food etc...Who says that America is the only place that can help these people? I think it's good to share the blessing and responsibility around.