EMM, other agencies await Trump administration action on refugee program as deadline looms

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 29, 2020

UPDATE: The Trump administration informed Congress late Sept. 30 that it intended to lower the cap of refugees resettled in the United States to 15,000, a historic low but only a modest reduction of 3,000 from the previous year’s cap. Read a statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on the admissions ceiling here

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries and the eight other agencies that resettle refugees in the United States on behalf of the federal government have received one-year extensions to continue that work – with one major catch: The Trump administration has not yet said whether it will allow any refugees into the country when the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

The 40-year-old federal resettlement program already had been diminished greatly by sharp limits imposed under President Donald Trump. For the past year, his administration allowed no more than 18,000 refugees into the country, and with the fiscal year now drawing to a close, only about 10,900 refugees actually were admitted, the fewest on record.

The administration typically sets the annual cap on resettlements by the end of September. As of Sept. 29, no announcement had been made for the 2021 fiscal year, and without that decision, resettlement efforts soon could be on hold indefinitely.

The Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, said in an interview with Episcopal News Service that Episcopal Migration Ministries and its affiliates would welcome a swift decision on refugee levels. “We are fully prepared to continue that 40-year work of resettlement in partnership with the government, alongside the other eight agencies,” he said.


Syrian refugee Baraa Haj Khalaf, left, kisses her father, Khaled, as her mother, Fattoum, cries after arriving at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, in February 2017. Photo: Reuters

And as uncertainty looms this week over the resettlement program, the Trump administration is facing increased pressure to set refugee levels for the year. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine resettlement agencies, stressed the need for the administration to act during a Sept. 29 call with reporters.

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops believes it is our duty to protect the lives and dignity of all people, regardless of where they were born,” Ashley Feasley, the Roman Catholic organization’s director of policy for its Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, said on the call, which was organized by the National Immigration Forum.

Another resettlement agency, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, issued a Sept. 24 letter signed by more than 200 Lutheran clergy members supporting continuation of resettlement efforts.

“As people of faith, we believe that we must honor the dignity of every human, regardless of national origin,” the Lutheran letter said. “We have a commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus and to uphold our nation’s tradition of protecting the persecuted.”

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is pressing for a refugee limit of at least 95,000, echoing statements released over the summer by large ecumenical coalitions that include The Episcopal Church and Episcopal clergy members.

For most of the past two decades, that cap remained between 70,000 and 90,000, and President Barack Obama raised it to 110,000 during his final year in office. The Trump administration then steadily slashed the number as part of its ongoing effort to restrict both legal and illegal immigration into the United States, a policy platform that was a central part of the president’s 2016 campaign.

The further reduction in refugee admissions this year is partly due to the coronavirus pandemic. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, paused global resettlements as a precaution, prompting the United States to suspend its own program for five months.

Global resettlement needs, meanwhile, have only increased in recent years. The refugees who are resettled in the United States typically are fleeing war, persecution and other hardships in their home countries. UNHCR estimates there are nearly 26 million such refugees worldwide, and tens of millions more have been displaced within their home countries.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby preached about the plight of refugees in his sermon Sept. 27 at Washington National Cathedral in the American capital. God calls on Christians, who once lived in exile, to love those in exile today, Welby said.

“We cannot hate what we choose or surround our love with barbed wire so that only those with the password can be its recipients,” he said. “We are God’s people. It is God who chooses, not us.”

The Episcopal Church first began assisting refugees in the 1930s and 1940s through the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, supporting people from Europe fleeing the Nazis. Since the Unites States created the current refugee resettlement program in 1980, EMM has resettled nearly 100,000 refugees, providing a range of services for these families upon their arrival in the United States, including English language and cultural orientation classes, employment services, school enrollment and initial assistance with housing and transportation.

Since refugee admissions were slashed under Trump, the number of local affiliates that EMM works with has dwindled from 31 to 13. Those remaining affiliates helped resettle about 1,600 refugees in 2019 – but only 600 this year.

Trump administration officials are weighing a range of options for the new fiscal year, including a possible postponement of further refugee resettlement, according to Reuters. “The arc of this administration’s refugee policy is going to continue,” an unnamed official told Reuters.

The future of refugee resettlement also could hinge on the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential election. Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said he would increase the annual refugee cap to 125,000.

EMM, long known for its resettlement work, has expanded its engagement on a broader range of immigration and migration issues in recent years. It created a resource guide for congregations interested in receiving and supporting asylum-seekers, and it is working with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Global Partnerships to develop a new initiative to support border ministries.

“There is the resettlement piece of EMM, but the 80-year-old mission has always been church engagement with refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers,” Robertson said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.