On the day we Americans remembered the horrors of the Holocaust and marched for the unborn, we shut our gates on the refugees of the world. Late on Friday President Trump, issuing an executive order, effectively did just that.
Of particular concern to those of us who work with refugees, the President suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days in what is being called a “reset”. That means that over the next four months, no refugees will enter the US and organizations such as ours will have to scramble without funding to maintain our refugee resettlement operations.
Other countries, like Australia, are being considered as alternative refugee destinations during this reset. But what does that mean for Pentecostal refugees from Ukraine in transit to reunite with family members already settled in Portland, Oregon? Just when these families think they will be together again at last, are they to find themselves divided by a Pacific Ocean they cannot cross?
In recent decades our local team, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s (EMO) SOAR program, has received tens of thousands of refugees from around the world. We partner with Church World Service (CWS), one of the nine national nonprofits who work with USRAP. Most of these nine are faith-based organizations, including World Relief of the National Association of Evangelicals, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At EMO/SOAR, our dedicated staff includes many former refugees themselves – from Eastern Europe, Northwest Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Cuba. They know what it’s like to arrive, exhausted and disoriented, after years of being in legal limbo, after extensive scrutiny, and unsettledness in third countries. It takes time for them to understand they are finally welcomed, safe and settled.
And now, we are being forced to stop right in our tracks while the federal government does a reset on what is indisputably the most successful and secure program of its kind. Why do I oppose this order? Let me count the ways:
1. The terrorist record – or glaring lack thereof – of refugees coming to the US.
Since 9/11, 750,000 people have been settled in the US through the USRAP. According to the Washington Free Beacon (a conservative paper) only one of those refugees has been involved in stateside terrorist activity: Abdul Razak Ali Artan from Somalia. Add in three individuals arrested for terrorist links in their home countries while in the US. Add in a dozen linked to terrorism in their home countries prior to coming to the US. Just for sake of argument, throw in the Tsarnaev brothers, whose father was granted political asylum, a process entirely different from arriving as a refugee, and thus not really countable. Now for good measure, double, no triple all those – just in case – and you come up with 0.000072% of refugees who have been known to be involved with terrorism. You are more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to be terrorized by a refugee. The charge that refugees are a threat just does not add up.
A friend asked me how the crime rate for refugees compares with the general US population. Actually it is lower, much, much lower. But, with the second generation, it skyrockets, becoming about the same as the general US population. In other words, the first generation of refugees is way less likely than the average American to commit a crime and their children turn out to be normal US citizens.
2. The difference between our refugee programs and those in Europe
No comparison. There was little or no vetting with the flood of refugees into Europe. Desperate people just rushed the borders, swam the waters, clawed their way to freedom, many dying enroute. How could they be stopped? No doubt troublemakers came with them. Even so, the vast majority were honestly fleeing for their lives.
When we talk about refugees, the only people who rush America’s boarders, swim the waters and claw their way to American freedom are Cubans, who until the last days of President Obama’s administration had a status unique among all the peoples of the earth. Then the “wet foot dry foot” policy that has long given Cubans instant refugee status was rescinded by Obama and now they too must be vetted just like everyone else.
3. The difference between refugees and immigrants – or, for that matter, tourists
If you want to spread terror in the USA, the last route you want to take is as a refugee. The vetting is daunting – harder than becoming President of the United States. Seriously, just get a tourist visa for most countries or come without a visa like everyone else from the UK or France.
Immigrants, legal or otherwise, are a whole different category from refugee. Farook of the San Bernardino attacks? Born in the USA. His accompliss, Malik, arrived on a fiancée visa (non-refugee). Rahimi the NY Chelsea bomber? Came as an immigrant. Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter? Born in the USA. His widow? Child of immigrants, not refugees. Oh, and none of them came from one of the countries on President Trump’s banned list, not even Syria. Home-bread Oklahomans and Coloradans have contributed more terrorists in the US than have Syrians.
I don’t mean to sound flippant, but the accusations about terrorist refugees are flippant. Nay, they are total falsehood. They have no basis in the facts. The US refugee vetting process is intense. Check out the screening process here.
Any system, even our own refugee system, has glitches from time to time. Investigations are currently underway concerning a few recent Syrian arrivals. But the only way to make sure our borders are absolutely secure is to shut out the world and allow no one, not even you or me, to come or go from our American shores. For me that flies in the face of the Great Commission. Can our refugee system be improved? Sure. Does it need to be shut down to be improved? No.
4. The organizations that settle them
Here is what I think is the greatest rub. On the very day that Vice President Pence said the Trump administration was standing with evangelicals on the right of unborn children to live, the President was coming into direct conflict with evangelicals about another cause near and dear to their hearts, their own refugee resettlement programs.
As I said above, the US Government engages nine mostly religious nonprofits in doing the work of resettling all refugees. Evangelicals and other people of faith play a huge outsized role in that work. They have for years. Not just when refugees first arrive, but for months and years after. If anything the President should be consulting the likes of World Relief and Church World Service before impacting their missions. Which brings me to my next point…
5. The impact that 120 days will have on these organizations
Let me speak personally. We had forewarning that this action might be taken by the new administration. We braced ourselves for it and prayed that it would not come. But come it did and now we and organizations like ours across the nation must expend precious resources to see how we can keep our refugee resettlement operations viable for the next few months who the administration does its reset.
Resettling refugees takes a lot of volunteers. But the work also takes a team of highly trained, highly dedicated staff. People like “Y” on my team, like me a Pentecostal who believes that God has given her this task of ministering to refugees. With our team, Y is committed to working with these refugees for 8 months, helping them with all kinds of processes to get them settled.
How do we pay Y so that she can do her job? We receive x amount of federal and state dollars for each refugee we resettle in addition to the money to be passed on directly to the newly arrived refugees to help them find housing, jobs, etc., etc., etc. This money comes to us from the Federal refugee program through CWS, our national partner agency that receives the refugees in New York or Miami and sends them on to us.
In other words, no refugees, no reimbursement from CWS. No reimbursement from CWS, no Y.
Jump to 120 days from now and the Administration decides it is okay to start allowing refugees to enter once again. We need Y to do what she has been doing so well for so many years. But will we still have Y?
6. The impact that 120 days will have on the refugees
As important as Y is, she and I both agree that the refugees are much more important. After all, Y herself was a refugee once. We have refugees who have been waiting for years to come to the US, years of vetting, years of sitting in third country refugee camps, years of kids growing up without any sense of roots, years of fear of having to return to a country where their lives have always been in danger. They could wait four more months, surely. Or can they?
Do you understand now why I oppose the new executive order? I have more reasons if these are not enough. But maybe you understand and you want to help. I pray so.
What can you do?
1. Call your congressional delegation.
Signing petitions. Marching. These are all helpful at raising awareness. But no one can address this matter like your Senator or Congressman can. The President alone can set the quota of arrivals in a given year. Personally I think his lowering it to 50,000 is wrongheaded. But he was elected, not me.
However, I have representation in Washington and I am putting pressure on them to put pressure on the White House. Only you can call on your own Congressman or Senator. He or she listens to you because you sent them there. So, please, call or write or email your Representatives today and tell them the 120-day reset is a very bad idea.
2. Contact your local agency to see what specific help they need.
Wherever you live, chances are there is a local agency partner of one of those nine national nonprofits that resettles refugees. Contact them. Tell them you appreciate them. Ask them what you can do. Likely they are reeling right now, just like after 9/11. They need to know you are standing with them.
I’ll tell you what we need. We need to know you support us and you are contacting your Congressional Delegation. We need to hear you are ready to volunteer to help. Like the guy who called today and said he is bringing our refugee team pizza for lunch tomorrow, just to show he cares.
And we need your support. Several months ago, during one of the recent refugee crises, we set up a Refugee Rapid Response Fund to help us be prepared financially for the extra pressure before we get the CWS reimbursements. Now we need that fund to help us maintain our preparedness in this 120 day crisis. We want to keep Y and the rest of our staff ready. We want to keep them helping the refugees who have already arrived. And so we need to increase the funds available. Perhaps you can help.
3. Mobilize others
Friends of mine went to Kosovo to serve a country greatly in need. Family health reasons required them to return after only a year. They were devastated that they could not follow God’s call in Kosovo. But shortly after they returned to Oregon, God gave them a vision to work with refugees arriving in their town. An amazing team of more than one hundred volunteers has come together in the past few months and my friends and this team are prepared to help us welcome the next wave of refugees who come our way. With your vision, you can recruit others to volunteer, to give, and to do one final and most crucial step:
I put this last, because I think it the most important. But it is really first, middle and last. Pray that a renewed vision for refugees would infuse our land to the very top. Pray that Christians (and others) will remember that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, not close our doors in fear. Pray that we will be able to continue to do the work God has called us to do. And pray for the refugees in limbo.
In recent days, my mind has returned to the story of the ship filled with Jewish refugees denied entry to America during World War II. In 1939, the US refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany. Denied permission to land in the US, their ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. But 254 are known to have died in the Holocaust.
A heavy way to end my thoughts, my friend. But it weighs heavy on my heart as I begin a week of trying to sort out what to do about our refugee program – and our refugees waiting offshore.