WASHINGTON (RNS) — President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security held a roundtable meeting with an array of faith groups on Friday (Dec. 18), a gathering participants described as “refreshing” and a shift away from the Trump administration’s combative relationship with religious organizations regarding immigration and refugee policy.
The long list of attendees huddled virtually with Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American Sephardic Jew and former refugee Biden has tapped as his DHS nominee.
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden’s promise to overturn President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which advocates characterize as a “Muslim ban.” They also discussed laws and regulations governing asylum claims.
Biden recently announced at a gathering of the Jesuit Refugee Service that he would raise the refugee ceiling to 125,000, above even the 110,000 cap former President Barack Obama set in his final year in office.
“The door just has not been open for discussion for the last four years for many of us in the human rights community,” Mark Hetfield of HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told Religion News Service after the meeting. “It was nice to actually have a meeting where you can discuss issues — that’s a 180 degree change from what we’ve been enduring for the last four years.”
Many faith groups that work with the federal government on immigration have had antagonistic relationships with the Trump administration as the White House repeatedly reduced the refugee ceiling to historic lows, most recently to just 15,000.
Last year, three faith-based groups, including HIAS, sued the Trump administration over an executive order granting state and local officials the authority to block refugee resettlement.
“I honestly feel there is no better person in the country to serve in this role than Alejandro,” Hetfield said of Mayorkas, who has served on HIAS’ board. “I think there’s a genuine commitment to solving problems, and to working together, and to gathering different opinions to make the government function better.”
Hetfield and other attendees noted that Mayorkas himself was a political refugee from Cuba.
“He’s been through it,” said Hetfield, who characterized the overall meeting as “refreshing.”
Nathan Bult, director of governmental affairs at Bethany Christian Services, told RNS that Mayorkas took “detailed notes” at the 90-minute meeting.
Bult, whose organization cared for a number of children who were separated from their families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, urged Mayorkas to continue protections for unaccompanied children. Also discussed was Biden’s promise to create a task force charged with reuniting children with their families.
Another attendee, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, the founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said he was also encouraged by the discussion of “bipartisan humane, and common-sense immigration reform.”
He and others said they were grateful to have Mayorkas’ ear but insisted on action.
“I felt like it was a genuine listening session, and many of us who’ve been around, we know when we’re being filibustered,” Salguero told RNS. “Now I hope that we’re able to move from listening to implementation.”
According to a Biden transition official, the meeting also included representatives from Catholic Charities USA, Emgage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Code Legal Aid, Christian Churches Together, Jesuit Refugee Services USA, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Arab American Institute, Bridging Cultures Group, Esperanza, the Ismaili Council for the USA, the Secure Community Network, the Islamic Society of North America and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Attendees said they were hopeful more meetings would occur in the future, as it was at least the second meeting between the Biden transition team and faith leaders this week. On Thursday, a group of transition team members also met with the Poor People’s Campaign, a faith-based advocacy group dedicated to eradicating poverty.