Ashley Feasley is director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Prior to working at USCCB, Ashley worked as director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. She has taught at Fordham University School of Law and at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America.
We are facing a global migration crisis. As of June 2019, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there was forced displacement of over 70 million people globally, with over 25 million people considered refugees who have fled to other countries. For the majority of the refugees, the solution is to either voluntarily return home when returning can be done in safety and dignity or integrating into a nearby refugee host country. Resettlement to a third country is a last resort. For 2020, UNHCR identified that over 1.44 million of the over 25 million refugees need resettlement, up from 1.2 million in need of resettlement in 2016.
Yet, despite a documented rising need for resettlement, the current global resettlement capacity is decreasing. One major reason for that is the retreat of the United States from the resettling of refugees, which has greatly contributed to reduced global resettlement capacity. From 2016 to 2018, there has been an over 70% reduction in U.S. refugee arrivals from 85,000 to 22,500 refugees. With maximum arrivals to the United States in 2020 set at 18,000, we will soon be experiencing an almost 80% reduction in U.S. resettlement since 2016.
In my work at the largest voluntary agency resettling refugees in partnership with the federal government, I have seen some devastating cases of prolonged family separation or delays of refugee arrivals due to recent policies and have spoken to countless refugees already living and integrating into the United States who felt stung and depressed by the harsh rhetoric describing them. There are days that I feel the work that we are doing here in Washington to advocate for the U.S. resettlement system and most importantly for refugees themselves fall on deaf ears or worse, cold hearts. But a recent remarkable event has given me renewed hope and it should give you hope too.
In September, an executive order was promulgated that required every governor and every county official where refugees were resettled to provide formal “consent” to the United States government in order for refugees to be initially resettled in that location. It is important to note that state and local entities have long been involved in the refugee resettlement consultation and in some cases, there are state-level refugee coordinator positions in governors’ staffs. Despite this fact, voluntary agencies responsible for resettling refugees were tasked by the administration with the responsibility to secure consent of hundreds of governor and county officials, and to do so in a short time frame of only a couple months, from late-September to mid-January.
I was privately pessimistic about our odds of success of getting all governors to consent to refugee resettlement. And, initially, the efforts to secure such consent were slow going. By the first week of December, there had only been 15 governors who had done so. However, something remarkable began to happen; at the grassroots and community level, people really started voicing their support for refugees. People from diverse faith, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds reached out to me and many at the local level asking how they could help. Faith communities, local business owners, fellow refugees, and immigrant communities spoke out, urging governors to say yes to resettlement. The efforts of so many diverse and local-driven coalitions yielded great success: By January 17, 2020, 43 governors had said yes to allowing refugee resettlement in their states, five states were still undecided, one state is not involved in resettlement, and in only one state, Texas, the governor very publicly said no. The Texas decision has been met by fierce local opposition and pushback. On January 17, the executive order, which was challenged in court, was made subject to a preliminary injunction. In accordance with that decision, we and the other voluntary agencies have not been seeking consent from the last five undecided states.
Seeing the groundswell of support and the many different groups and individuals who stood in solidarity with refugees has filled me and many working in resettlement with renewed purpose and vigor. I feel that we must work hard to continue that momentum and also continue educating communities about refugees that in some cases have been resettled and living in their communities for years. I see this as a blessing and an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to reach out and share the stories of refugees who have inspired me in their resilience and their love of family and to educate others about our amazing internationally acclaimed resettlement system. I also think of it as the ultimate moment to live out what Pope Francis has called for us to do: Welcome, protect, accompany, and integrate our refugee brothers and sisters in Christ.