To Reimagine the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the Biden Administration Must Work with Communities of Faith

By: Erol Kekic

December 3, 2020

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

To Reimagine the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the Biden Administration Must Work with Communities of Faith

An ecumenical organization representing 37 Protestant denominations, Church World Service (CWS) is a global leader in international and U.S. refugee protection and resettlement. Our diverse faith traditions call us to love our neighbor—indeed, all of our neighbors, regardless of their places of birth, religions, or ethnicities. Jesus commands us to welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Generations of immigrants and refugees have made this country stronger through their ideas, hard work, resilience, and traditions. CWS has accompanied and served refugees, immigrants, and host communities since its founding in 1946. In this time, we have helped more than 860,000 refugees, asylees, and other immigrants find protection and welcome they so needed. We recognize the incredible contributions that refugees make to our communities, as well as the deep commitment by people of faith across the country to welcome their new neighbors. Compelled by faith, our member communions have consistently advocated for a just and humane resettlement program and immigration system that recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of refugees and to ensure justice and protection for all. 

We recognize the incredible contributions that refugees make to our communities, as well as the deep commitment by people of faith across the country to welcome their new neighbors.

In the face of the worst refugee crisis in history with an unprecedented 29.6 million refugees worldwide, these demands have fallen on deaf ears over the last four years as the Trump administration drastically cut the resettlement program by more than 80% and reduced the size, efficiency, and effectiveness of resettlement and humanitarian programs. The United States’ abdication of leadership through historically low refugee admissions and reduced financial support for global resettlement and assistance has prolonged the suffering of tens of thousands of refugees and forfeited our ability to credibly urge other countries to keep their doors open to people in need of protection. It has also significantly curtailed the fundamental freedom of faith communities across the country to practice their religion as they believe they are called to do. 

The incoming Biden administration’s stated commitment to raising refugee admissions from 15,000 to 125,000 and beyond is a welcome first step to restoring the U.S. government’s commitment to refugees and communities of faith. In congregations and houses of worship across the nation, Americans are ready and willing to welcome their new neighbors. These people of faith—and countless others who share this most American value of welcome—sustained the moral compass of our nation even in the darkest moments of family separation. Their voices were loud in the chorus calling for us to be our better selves. These same voices now call for the Biden administration to do more than correct the political challenges of the last four years. We believe we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not only rebuild, but to reimagine refugee resettlement in the United States. And we are prepared to do this in the aftermath of COVID-19 and its impact. 

A key implementing partner of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, CWS has extensive practical experience with the entire resettlement process, from overseas identification and case processing to placement and integration of refugees in the United States. Grounded in this experience, we recently completed a comprehensive study proposing key recommendations to improve the operation of resettlement programs worldwide. Drawing on the findings of this report and according to its faith commitments, CWS urges the Biden administration to re-engage communities of faith directly in the work of refugee resettlement. 

CWS urges the Biden administration to re-engage communities of faith directly in the work of refugee resettlement.

Though the pandemic has changed many of the ways that these groups interact with one another and their larger communities, it has not changed the values that drive us. In fact, many faith communities have been on the front-lines of meeting their neighbor’s physical, spiritual, and emotional needs throughout the pandemic. The Biden administration should invest in rebuilding and amplifying local faith communities’ capacities and amplifying their positive messages about who refugees are, why they are here, and why it benefits all of society to be involved in resettlement

The work of resettling refugees is, and should continue to be, a public-private partnership. However, for four years, the private sector has sustained this work. Now is the time for the public sector to build a more humane and robust program. In addition to immediately notifying Congress of the president’s intent to increase the FY21 Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions, the administration should request supplemental appropriations from Congress for the key agencies who oversee and implement the resettlement program. Only the federal government has the resources and connections to lay the groundwork for a highly functioning program. By making these commitments immediately, the Biden administration can create the space needed for the private sector to continue to re-engage and re-energize Americans from all walks of life who stand for welcome. 

We have seen first-hand that federal agencies sometimes struggle managing coordination that is so desperately needed to ensure that refugees are not just relocated, but assisted fully in their quest toward new life in the United States. We must go beyond the rhetoric of “early self-sufficiency” and place our priorities and funds on full integration that resettlement promises. The Biden administration should appoint a senior-level White House coordinator to coordinate federal agencies and other stakeholders around rebuilding the resettlement program, establish benchmarks to meet admissions goals, and lead an immediate interagency audit of refugee processing and security vetting. The coordinator should aggressively monitor its progress to ensure these goals are pursued in a timely, sustainable, and comprehensive manner.

The Biden administration should appoint a senior-level White House coordinator to coordinate federal agencies and other stakeholders around rebuilding the resettlement program.

We who have worked directly with refugees throughout the resettlement process know that the program can often be slow and inefficient and struggle to meet the human needs of refugees and their families as it ought. In addition to detrimental policy changes, the previous administration also exacerbated these challenges by inserting harmful procedural and administrative barriers. The Biden administration should therefore urgently initiate an interagency audit of refugee processing and security vetting procedures and take rapid measures to improve the program’s efficiency, including rebuilding the UNHCR resettlement referral pipeline and reinvesting in domestic and overseas infrastructure. This is of particular interest to faith communities concerned with the extent to which current policies and practices discriminate against particular refugees on account of their race, religion, and nationality. We believe that processing and vetting policies must be fair and equitable, recognizing the inherent worth, humanity, and dignity of all.

Finally, faith communities can continue to be instrumental in driving innovative programming. Local communities know their contexts best. Equipped with robust public support, local groups—including communities of faith—can provide personalized support to refugees to bridge cultural, linguistic, educational, and religious differences and support refugees’ integration into their new communities. The Biden administration should expand its support of these kinds of initiatives, such as enhanced youth, psychosocial, employment, and educational programming designed to serve both refugees and local communities. It should also expand the remote placement capacities of resettlement agencies. 

Faith communities across the country are ready and waiting to more fully put their beliefs into practice. We believe that faith without works is dead (James 2:14, 17), and for too long, reduced refugee resettlement and discriminatory refugee and immigration policy have limited our ability to do the work to which we are called. We welcome the Biden administration’s commitment to rescinding all harmful anti-refugee, anti-immigrant bans and to rebuilding refugee resettlement. We urge it to work hand-in-hand with faith communities to reimagine its future.

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