(Re)constructing the American Narrative on Refugee Resettlement

By: Ruth Gopin

November 30, 2020

Responding to: Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

(Re)constructing the American Narrative on Refugee Resettlement

What does long-term security and stability look like? Is it an elusive bygone concept from a past era, no longer applicable to the volatilities that seem destined to define our future? Certainly, it can seem so in the face of COVID-19 calamities where changes catapult one upon another before there is time to adjust, ever new forms of economic devastation, and worsening climate catastrophes. But 79.5 million forcibly displaced people understand the meaning of volatility better than anyone else, and we owe it to them, especially, to restore clear processes and procedures. Revival of the United States’ refugee resettlement system must look beyond the first 100 days of the new administration and work to secure a fair and unprejudiced process for all asylum seekers, with support from both sides of the aisle on this, neither red nor blue, American issue.

Underlying the crucial policy and administrative changes advocates are calling for is a very important and often overlooked shift in messaging that is already occurring and must continue throughout President-elect Biden’s tenure in office and beyond. The narrative that President Trump’s administration has been able to cultivate around refugees and refugee resettlement is astounding, particularly in its hypocrisy. Trump and his officials have touted religious persecution worldwide as a top issue, holding unprecedented ministerials and summits to advance religious freedom. At the same time, many of the 1.4 million refugees currently awaiting resettlement around the world are fleeing religious persecution, directly or indirectly. 

The narrative that President Trump’s administration has been able to cultivate around refugees and refugee resettlement is astounding, particularly in its hypocrisy.

Yet Trump’s dismantling of the refugee resettlement system in the United States has been characterized by the very prejudices he has claimed to want to defend against. Exclusion on the basis of religion has become normalized or, worse, lauded, most prominently with the institution of a de facto “Muslim ban” on 13 countries. This ban was issued in the context of a dramatic decrease in U.S. acceptance of refugees over the past four years, translating to reduced funding and forcing refugee assistance agencies to dramatically reduce their capacity to accept new arrivals and to provide services for resettled populations. Outdated technology and understaffing can also lead to critical errors that in turn pose national security risks, the kinds Trump liked to tout at rallies even while dismantling the system that protects us from them.

The starkly terrible effects of this attitude are especially underscored and vividly illustrated in comparison to the post-9/11 response. Although a freeze on refugee admissions was initially put into place, and security reviews and restrictions became much stricter, the Bush administration maintained a ceiling of 70,000 for refugee arrivals and even increased it to 80,000 in Bush’s final year as president, a strong indicator of the administration’s desire to rebuild resettlement. The Bush administration’s State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration also worked with the national resettlement agencies to provide budgetary support that allowed the system’s infrastructure to withstand the sudden drop in arrival numbers. Funds were made available for the national resettlement agencies to cover administrative costs and maintain operations at a consistent level. These actions signaled a strong political will and commitment to the eventual rebuilding of the refugee resettlement program in a way that would be secure but also fair and accessible.

The unprecedented and prejudiced politicization of refugee resettlement over the past four years has eroded a core value that used to emblematize a point of pride, even identity, for Americans across the aisle—that this is a land of liberty for all who are tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free. President-elect Biden has already signaled that he will attempt to return the country to a more constructive attitude through policy and narrative. His appointees are also taking seriously their role in shifting the narrative. 

President-elect Biden has already signaled that he will attempt to return the country to a more constructive attitude through policy and narrative.

When Alejandro Mayorkas was nominated as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), his first tweet was to acknowledge his own migrant roots and promise protection to those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba and came as a refugee to the United States with his family when he was a baby, is the first Latino and immigrant nominated to lead DHS, the agency that oversees immigration and border policies. His mother is a Romanian Jew who fled the Holocaust. He understands deeply and personally what it means to seek refuge. His nomination also signaled a de-escalation of the politicization of refugee resettlement, with widespread support from immigrant advocacy groups, security and intelligence experts, and many others, including Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Florida GOP and of the American Conservative Union, who said in a tweet: “This is it. The change we needed, hallelujah.”

The vulnerabilities in our refugee resettlement system have been cruelly brought to light by the outgoing administration. Structural changes to fix these issues, which came on top of long-standing weaknesses, will take a long time to implement, especially in light of the dismantling of the past four years. The administration that follows this one will need to be committed to rebuilding and reinstituting this program. If there is to be any real hope for deep-seated change in processes and attitudes, the politicization of the issue must end now. Our narrative must return to that of the sacred and patriotic duty we hold as Americans to offer refuge to those less fortunate.

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