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Biden urged to keep commitment on refugee admissions

A Syrian refugee family lives in a tent provided by the UN.

WASHINGTON (BP) – Southern Baptist and other advocates for persecuted people are urging President Biden to follow through on his commitment to increase refugee admissions dramatically after a record low in the last year.

The State Department announced Oct. 6 only 11,411 refugees were admitted to the United States in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The total – which fell far short of the 62,500 cap set by Biden in May – constituted the fewest refugee admissions since the 1980 enactment of a law establishing the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. The previous low was 11,814 in the year ending 2020.

On Oct. 8, Biden signed a memorandum authorizing the admission of as many as 125,000 refugees through September 2022.

Multiple leading refugee advocates cited the executive branch policies of the last five years, especially those of the Trump administration, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on processing refugees as reasons for the dramatic decline in admissions.

“This is a low point for our nation — one that has always served as a beacon of hope for the persecuted around the globe — and we urge the Biden administration to ensure that a robust refugee resettlement program is reconstituted to offer a pathway for those fleeing for their lives,” said Chelsea Sobolik, director of public policy for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments Friday (Oct. 15).

“At a time when thousands are facing global persecution and violence, the United States should stand ready to welcome refugees with open arms.”

Matthew Soerens of World Relief said in a written release Oct. 6, “For decades, the United States led the world in refugee resettlement, but the precedent set by U.S. policy over the last five years, both in terms of refugee resettlement and asylum, has marred our global reputation as a safe haven for persecuted people.

“We are praying that the United States will quickly step back into the position of welcoming more refugees, whether they are persecuted for their faith, their ethnicity, their protest of tyrannical governments, their affiliation with the U.S. military in Afghanistan or Iraq or any other reason.” Soerens is World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy.

World Relief is a Christian organization that works with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees, many who are religious adherents persecuted for their faith.

A decline of about 90 percent in the number of Christians and other religious minorities resettled in the United States has occurred since 2015, according to a report published in 2020 by World Relief and Open Doors USA.

The United Nations has defined a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to its 1951 Refugee Convention.

Biden’s new admissions cap followed four years of record-low ceilings established under President Trump – from 45,000 refugee admissions in the 2018 fiscal year to 30,000 in 2019 to 18,000 in 2020 and 15,000 in 2021. The number of admissions often is less than the ceiling. According to the State Department, the number of admissions under the caps set by the Trump administration were 22,560 in 2018, 30,000 in 2019 and 11,814 and 11,411 the last two years.

In the decade prior (2008-17), the United States welcomed an average of about 67,000 refugees each year, according to the Pew Research Center. The record high for the cap and admissions is 232,000 and 207,000, respectively, in 1980, Pew reported.

In April, Biden signed a presidential determination that kept the admissions ceiling for this fiscal year at 15,000, the cap established by Trump in his final year in the White House. Criticism of what refugee advocates called a broken promise by Biden swiftly ensued, and the president revised the admissions ceiling to 62,500 in May. At the time, he acknowledged the United States could not reach that total this year.

The administration also admitted, however, in a recent report to Congress it is unsure of reaching the 125,000 cap in 2022, a World Relief spokesman told Baptist Press. It has allocated funding for resettling 65,000 refugees in the next year but could raise that amount if enough refugees can be processed in other countries, he reported.

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the Afghans who have entered the United States or are expected to in the months ahead will participate in the resettlement process but technically are not refugees, the spokesman said. They did not count toward the admissions ceiling in 2021 and will not count toward the cap in 2022, he said.

Refugees must pass a stringent screening process that includes multiple biometric and biographic checks and an interview before being eligible to enter the United States, according to 2020 guidelines by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The federal government’s resettlement of refugees is distinct from its efforts on the Mexican border to address the waves of children and adults seeking asylum in this country.

The United States’ reduction in the admissions ceiling has come at a time when conflicts in multiple countries have resulted in massive numbers of refugees. At the end of 2020, an estimated 26.4 million people were considered refugees, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Care for refugees is one of the focus areas of Send Relief, the SBC’s compassion ministry performed through the cooperative effort of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Send Relief, which encourages churches to proclaim the Gospel while meeting practical needs, served 13,933 people in its work with refugees and internationals in North America in 2020. It mobilized more than 850 people to serve in refugee ministry. Those numbers do not include overseas work with refugees.

Messengers to the 2016 SBC meeting adopted a resolution that urged “Southern Baptist churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne.” Messengers to the 2018 meeting reaffirmed that resolution.