Jims Porter, policy and communications coordinator at RefugeeOne, talks Aug. 8, 2018, about why there are fewer English students at the center now. In addition to other reasons, U.S. immigration policy has meant fewer arrivals. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune)

The U.S. refugee resettlement program will live or die depending on the president’s decision on the refugee admissions ceiling for 2020. Reportedly he may set the ceiling at zero, terminating nearly 40 years of this humanitarian program, which has been a lifeline for the persecuted and our nation’s most compelling remaining claim to any moral leadership in the world.

As of July 2, 8,819 refugees have been approved to travel to the United States, after exhaustive security clearances abroad. They are eagerly anticipating flights to the U.S. An additional 29,362 refugees have passed their U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services interviews and are awaiting next steps. These families fled persecution and violence in their homelands — many because of their faith, ethnicity or for speaking out against oppression. They made perilous journeys to neighboring countries, endured years in desperate conditions in refugee camps, and have finally successfully completed extensive U.S. security checks. They cannot safely return to their homelands. They meet the strict criteria for resettlement in the U.S. Some are the spouses, children or parents of refugees already firmly settled in Maryland. Their final hopes of safety and reunion with family will be crushed if the president chooses to slam the door of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

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Refugees are an essential part of the workforce of businesses throughout Maryland - hotels and resorts, food processing plants, restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities. Refugees and their children have become Maryland’s teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses and EMTs, attorneys, dedicated members of our military and elected officials. A higher percentage of refugees than of other Americans have become entrepreneurs, starting businesses that hire both native-born Marylanders and immigrants.

One alternative the president is reportedly considering is setting the refugee limit at half of last year’s lowest-ever ceiling, reserving those numbers for Special Immigrant Visa Holders (“SIVs”) – people who aided the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those individuals are certainly deserving of resettlement. However, a nation that claims to uphold the values of freedom of religion and speech must not use their admission as an excuse to turn away the thousands of refugees who have been persecuted for their faith or political opinions, who have already been cleared to come to the U.S. We certainly have the capacity to welcome both.

Refugee resettlement, like all human services, happens at the local level. Every local organization has a bottom line below which it cannot support staff and operate effectively. The FY 2019 national ceiling of 30,000 refugees (by far the lowest in the program’s history), when distributed to resettlement organizations around the country, was so far below sustainability that dozens of local resettlement organizations had to close. Their faith community partners — eager to continue to welcome refugees — were deeply saddened. Scores of other local resettlement offices are barely surviving, praying for a restoration of the program to more traditional levels starting Oct. 1st, so they can continue to assist newly arrived refugees to become self-sufficient, productive members of their new communities. If the ceiling is set at last year’s level or lower, the infrastructure for serving refugees (and SIVs) is very likely to collapse.

Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, talks with a family at the Baltimore Resettlement Center earlier this year.
Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, talks with a family at the Baltimore Resettlement Center earlier this year. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

In Maryland, organizations such as the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore and Silver Spring, and Lutheran Social Services of the National Capitol Area in Hyattsville might have to close their doors. World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, both headquartered in Baltimore, have already had to close many of their local resettlement offices around the country, and others of their affiliates are waiting to find out whether the U.S. refugee program — and their own local part of it — will live or die.

In July, many leading evangelicals wrote to the president asking him to reinvigorate the U.S. refugee resettlement program to historic levels. In August, another group of more than 500 faith leaders urged an admissions ceiling of no less than 95,000. A few weeks ago, 172 national, state and local government officials recommended the same. Several dozen businesses in Michigan wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with a similar plea. Last week, many of our most respected retired military generals and admirals wrote the president urging him to resettle 95,000 refugees in the year starting Oct. 1st.

The state of Maryland was established as a haven for persecuted Catholics. Since the inception of our state and our nation, welcoming those fleeing persecution and oppression has been a deeply held value. Let’s urge the president not to abandon it now.

Patricia Hatch (phatch@pcanet.org) retired as program manager of the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees. She is the founder of FIRN, a Columbia nonprofit that helps foreign-born individuals access community resources and opportunities.

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