Denying Resettlement to Refugees: Betraying U.S. Leadership, History, and Values

By: David Hollenbach

December 11, 2019

Responding to: Religion and Refugee Resettlement: The American Context

Denying Resettlement to Refugees: Betraying U.S. Leadership, History, and Values

On September 26, 2019, President Donald Trump’s annual Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions set new regulations on the resettlement of refugees in the United States. The number of refugees to be admitted into the United States in the coming year is to be reduced to 18,000, the lowest number since the refugee admission program began over forty years ago. It is a significant decrease from the 30,000 cap of the previous year and from the 110,000 president Barack Obama had set as the target for the number of refugees to be resettled in 2016, the last year of his presidency. On the same day that the lower cap was set, President Trump also issued an executive order giving state and local governments new authority to refuse to admit refugees.

The United States has long exercised real leadership in providing new homes for refugees. Until 2017, the United States admitted more refugees than all the other countries of the world combined (see data from a 2019 Pew Research Center report). The historical story of U.S. response to refugees has shown the importance of Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Sadly, President Trump is seeking to reverse the plot of this story, changing it from a narrative of welcome to one of exclusion.

Trump’s policy change is not only a move against the narrative that helped form some of the most admirable aspects of U.S. identity. It is in direct conflict with key ethical and religious values. In our increasingly interdependent world, those fleeing violence and other threats to their basic rights have become our neighbors. Thus the Hebrew Bible’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is of urgent relevance. This relevance is intensified by the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures also declare that compassion and justice are due not only to fellow Jews but to strangers outside the Jewish community. While the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” appears once in the Hebrew Bible, the command to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33–34, and many other places). 

The New Testament also repeatedly stresses moral and religious obligations to those from other lands. In contrast to the xenophobia that so often characterizes President Trump’s denigration of refugees and migrants, the New Testament repeatedly calls Christians to a stance of xenophilia (love of the foreigner; in Greek, philoxenia. See Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2 and 5:10, Titus 1:8, Hebrews 13: 2, 1 Peter 4:9). Jesus identified himself with strangers facing the suffering that drives refugees from their homes. He called his followers to recognize that what they do to such foreigners they do to Jesus himself (Matthew 25: 40 and 45).

Thus, not only does the deep reduction in the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States abandon values deeply embedded in the American story; it also betrays religious traditions that have helped shape American society in important ways. The Trump refugee resettlement policy, therefore, can be seen as a corruption of the story that makes us Americans who we are. 

It is true, of course, that American and Christian values do not call for open borders. Borders remain important, as protections against external threats and as supports for national well-being. But borders are certainly not absolutes. They do not set boundaries to the scope of our moral responsibility. When people in other lands are in great need and when we have the capacity to help them, we can have a duty to do so. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has determined that those recommended for resettlement in the United States are the very neediest among the 70.8 million displaced people in the world today. 68% of those recommended for resettlement by UNHCR in 2018 were survivors of violence and torture, or had special legal and physical needs for protection. Many are vulnerable women and girls, and more than half of those proposed for resettlement are children. They are among the neediest people on earth. 

Data also indicate that refugees resettled in the United States on average contribute more to the country than the country provides to them. The Center for Migration Studies has shown that the labor force participation of refugees resettled in the United States between 1987 and 2016 was 68% compared to 63% for the total U.S. population, and the employment rate of the resettled was 64% in contrast to the 60% employment rate achieved by the US population as a whole. The center’s study also found that the income of those resettled between 1987 and 1996 exceeded the median personal income of the U.S. population by $28,000 to $23,000. Thus the incoming refugees pay more in taxes than do those born in the country. Resettled people are givers, not takers. The claim that they add burdens to the country is simply false. 

When the alternative to resettlement is continued suffering and possible death, there can be no factual basis for turning them away. Denying them resettlement can only be due to failure to appreciate the reality of the situation. Or worse from a moral point of view, it could result from simply not caring what happens to these people. In either case, it is morally wrong to deny resettlement to refugees in grave need when one has the capacity to provide it without disproportionate burden.

Thus, we need to make vigorous efforts to reverse the direction of resettlement policy being pursued by the current U.S. administration. The United States, of course, does not have the capacity to resettle more than a tiny fraction of the 70.8 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, even if it were to follow policies like those of pre-Trump days. But recent restrictions on resettlement will have life-and-death impact on those not admitted, leading to death for some of them. Perhaps just as important will be the symbolic effect if the United States no longer leads the world in resettling to refugees, but seeks to exclude them. This shift will surely have an important impact in politics around the world. By abandoning its role of leadership, the United States would also betray its own history and values. 

We should, therefore, work hard to reverse the recent reduction in the number to be resettled. We should seek to welcome even more of those in great need today than we did in the past, for we have the capacity to do so. The need today is greater than at any time since World War II. The U.S. response should be correspondingly great.

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