WASHINGTON—The head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Friday the United States will “turn them back” if persecuted Christians seek to circumvent the refugee cap by finding other ways to immigrate to the country.
A Daily Mail reporter asked acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli on the White House lawn if there was any way for persecuted Christians to bypass the latest refugee quota, which the Trump administration set at a historic low. The immigration czar said they could not apply for asylum at the border under recent policy changes. When the journalist asked whether that meant persecuted Christians “can’t get in at all,” Cuccinelli walked away.
On Sept. 26, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would allow 18,000 refugees into the United States in the coming year. The previous year’s cap was 30,000, and the number averaged about 90,000 per year before Trump became president. The White House said it would reserve 4,000 refugee slots for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military overseas, 1,500 for people from Central America, and 5,000 for persecuted religious minorities. The remaining 7,500 slots will go to those whom authorities have already cleared for resettlement and who already have family in the country. People fleeing war and persecution who have only recently entered the system have virtually no hope of resettling in the United States with the new cap in place.
The United States policy on refugees dates back to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention. Quotas on accepting people from certain countries kept the United States and other nations from admitting Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and some of them were later killed. After World War II, countries committed not to send people back to places where they had a credible fear of persecution.
Migrants apply for refugee status in locations like refugee camps that are far from U.S. shores. After UN and U.S. vetting, the State Department handpicks refugees for resettlement, making them the most thoroughly screened class of immigrants.
“What happens is that Americans remember visuals of hundreds of Syrians, mainly men, coming into Europe—and to them that’s refugees. [They think of] people coming up to the border, and in their mind that’s refugees,” said Nadine Maenza, vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “What people don’t necessarily understand is that a refugee is very different than someone who is displaced, and very different from someone who is a migrant who’s looking for work in another place. A refugee is someone who can’t go back. It’s not safe for them to go back.”
The refugee process is distinct from the asylum process, in which unvetted migrants present themselves at a country’s border. The two categories of immigrants receive separate congressional funding, and no cap exists on how many people can receive asylum in a year.
Some in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have said that reducing refugee acceptance will balance out the overflow of migrants seeking asylum at the border. The asylum backlog has more than 1 million active cases.
“President Trump is prioritizing the safety and security of the American people by making sure we do not admit more people than we can vet,” the State Department said when announcing the lowered refugee cap. “The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle a large number of refugees. Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense.”
Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, noted that refugees usually do not act as an economic drain on the United States, noting that while it costs money upfront to resettle refugees, highly successful programs—many run by nonprofit groups and churches—exist to help refugees quickly find jobs and begin contributing as taxpayers. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated in 2017 that over a 10-year period, “the net fiscal impact of refugees was positive … at $63 billion,” The New York Times reported.
“The border is very controversial. The refugee resettlement program didn’t use to be controversial,” Soerens said. “The things that people are concerned with about immigration—our refugee resettlement program has been the gold standard of how to do this well.”
Three years into the Trump administration, the United States has admitted fewer Christian refugees than its predecessors. Data from World Relief showed that under President Barack Obama, the country resettled an average of 22,055 Christians annually from countries on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of persecution hot spots. In addition, the Obama administration resettled an average of 3,467 refugees per year from other faiths.
If the Trump administration resettles 5,000 persecuted religious believers in the coming year, “that’s an 80 percent decline from the last administration,” Soerens said.
Just days before announcing the reduced cap, Trump spoke at a United Nations event on religious freedom and pledged that America “will always be a voice for victims of religious persecution everywhere.”
But the numbers don’t lie, Soerens said: “We are not protecting international persecuted religious minorities even at the level we historically have.”