The US State Department has proposed a stark reduction in the annual number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the country—at most, 18,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2020, compared to an average ceiling of 95,000 over the past four decades.
As someone who has worked for many years at World Relief—an evangelical ministry that has resettled nearly 300,000 refugees since 1979, partnering both with the State Department and thousands of local churches—I’m heartbroken by the effects of this decision. At least 12,000 fewer refugees will be welcomed to the US this year compared to last year.
That number represents 12,000 human beings, each of whom is made in God’s image with inherent dignity. It includes individuals who have already waited years to be reunited to a spouse, parent, or child who is in the US, separations that are likely to be extended now that there will be fewer slots for resettlement.
It includes Christians from countries where Christians are persecuted, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Burma. The number of persecuted Christians who have found refuge in the United States has already fallen starkly from 2016, and now could decline further. It also includes thousands of Muslims and those of other faiths, some of whom might have ultimately embraced Jesus in the US after encountering the hospitality and kindness of a team from a local church.
I grieve each of these impacts and pray the president will reconsider this decision.
But the effects of this decision actually extend well beyond those who will not be resettled to the US this year. This decision could have long-term ripple effects that should be troubling for the nation and, even more so, for the church.
This decision could effect other nations’ acceptance of refugees. The US is a world leader, and when we do less, other nations follow our lead. The US resettled 76 percent fewer refugees in 2018 than in 2016, but the number resettled to all other countries also dropped by 25 percent—even as the number of refugees globally increased by 15 percent.
With more refugees in the world than at any time in recorded history, there are fewer countries willing to offer them resettlement or asylum. Former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker observes that we are “showing other wealthy countries how to abdicate moral responsibility. And giving up the leverage to encourage them to do more.”
The decision may also effect the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. The Trump administration has cited the dramatic increase in individuals seeking asylum at the border as a rationale for reducing resettlement. But as we reduce resettlement, more will likely conclude that their only hope of finding protection from violence is to make a dangerous journey through Mexico (and sometimes several other countries) to request asylum, which US law guarantees only to those who physically reach the US.
For example, as the number of Salvadoran refugees resettled to the US dropped by about 70 percent between fiscal year 2017 and fiscal year 2019, the number of Salvadoran asylum decisions jumped by more than 50 percent. About 20 percent of those individuals were granted asylum, meaning they demonstrated to the satisfaction of the US government that they met the legal definition of a refugee.
In response to the increase in asylum-seeking families arriving at the US-Mexico border, the Trump administration has introduced a battery of new policies to deter individuals from coming. Those changes include redefining who can qualify for asylum (those fleeing gang violence will generally no longer qualify); requiring asylum seekers to wait for their court dates in Mexico, where many face threats of kidnapping, trafficking and violence (as do pastors and others seeking to offer them shelter); and denying almost all asylum seekers who arrive via Mexico, unless they first apply for and are denied asylum there or in another country.
A much better policy would be to dramatically expand the US refugee resettlement program. Family could apply and be vetted closer to home and then travel safely by airplane. This would deter people from making a dangerous journey and then we wouldn’t have to abandon our moral and legal obligations to protect those with credible fears of persecution. By further restricting refugee resettlement, the administration is exacerbating a humanitarian nightmare along our border.
The stark decline in refugee resettlement has also decimated the infrastructure to receive and integrate refugees, which has been built over more than four decades of successful public-private partnership. The State Department grants funds on a per-refugee basis to nine non-profit organizations including World Relief, most of which are faith-based. Those organizations pair the funds with donations to employ staff and equip volunteers to help refugees in the process of integration.
With far fewer refugees to be resettled and a sudden reduction in funding, those nine organizations have had to halt resettlement in nearly 100 locations. World Relief has closed seven offices and adapted several others to continue serving vulnerable refugees and other immigrants, but without resettling any newly arrived refugees. Financial support from churches and individual donors has increased, but we have still had to make difficult changes—and might need to adapt further.
With each office we close, we lay off talented staff and lose personal relationships with dozens of local church partners. Office space is turned over to landlords. Restarting a resettlement program is not simply a switch to turn off and then on—and the more of this infrastructure that is lost, the harder it will be to rebuild if and when, as I pray is the case, the US returns to resettling a historically normal number of refugees.
As a Christian, though, I believe the most significant ripple effect of the US decision to turn our backs on refugees is tied to our reputation.
When I interact with non-Christians, they’re sometimes shocked to learn that I’m an evangelical Christian whose work is focused on welcoming refugees. I know many evangelical churches who give sacrificially to welcome refugees, but the reputation of evangelicalism has been hitched to the policies of President Donald Trump, whom most white evangelicals support.
Many non-Christians seem to think the idea of an evangelical who cares about refugees is oxymoronic. They are aware of a poll showing that just 25 percent of white evangelicals believe the US has a responsibility to welcome refugees, far lower than any other religious demographic in the country. We’ve become known—fairly or not—as heartless and xenophobic.
I understand the various reasons apart from refugee policy that many evangelicals support President Trump. But if evangelicals—Trump voters and never-Trumpers alike—do not speak up loudly to defend the refugee resettlement program, it handicaps our evangelism both among refugees throughout the world and among the majority of our non-evangelical US neighbors who view evangelical Christians as heartless and hypocritical.
When non-Christians’ attitudes toward vulnerable refugees seem to be more consistent with biblical teaching than those of many Christians, we’re certainly not letting our light shine so the whole world can see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). Now is the time for the church to speak up—before it’s too late.
Matthew Soerens is World Relief's US director of church mobilization and co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.