(RNS) — Daad Serweri had been waiting for five years to come to the United States as a refugee.
Having worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, he was eligible to come to the country on a Special Immigrant Visa. His work had made him a target for the Taliban, which now viewed him as “the eyes and ears of the troops,” he said.
But in January 2017, Donald Trump took office as president and signed an executive order temporarily suspending refugee admissions. In the years that followed, Trump continued to slash the number of refugees allowed into the country to historic lows.
And Serweri suddenly found himself in limbo.
He, his wife and their baby just had gotten their visa, he said, and “we worried (the order) might affect our visa, too, because you never knew at that time.
“It was completely in a kind of limbo type of situation for a lot of people like me and a lot of people that have been in worse situations,” he said.
Serweri and his family arrived in the U.S. in late February — finally exhaling as they made it through the airport, he said. He knows how lucky they were, how many refugees still were waiting in desperate situations.
Nearly four years later to the day, President Joe Biden has signaled an about-face in U.S. refugee policy.
On Thursday (Feb. 4), barely two weeks into his own presidency, Biden signed an executive order he said will “begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program,” positioning his administration to raise the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. from 15,000 to 125,000 in its first full fiscal year. (By comparison, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama set that number at 110,000 his last year in office.)
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said.
The heads of various faith-based groups involved in refugee resettlement praised the text of the order, posted online Thursday evening.
“The refugee (executive order) is great, recognizes that the program needs … a total overhaul after 4 years of abuse and decades of neglect and opacity,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), said in an email to Religion News Service.
“This really does build back better resettlement!” Hetfield added, in a reference to one of Biden’s campaign slogans.
The new fiscal year doesn’t begin until October, but a statement from the White House said Biden will also propose raising the so-called refugee ceiling for this fiscal year, after consulting with Congress.
While HIAS and other faith-based organizations involved in refugee resettlement are feeling hopeful, the twin realities of a global pandemic and the massive amount of work required to rebuild the gutted U.S. resettlement apparatus have many admitting it’s unlikely the U.S. will admit 125,000 refugees anytime soon.
“It’s a change in direction. We welcome it. We are very pleased to see it as a church,” Demetrio Alvero, director of operations for Episcopal Migration Ministries, said last week in anticipation of Biden’s announcement, which fulfills a campaign pledge.
But Alvero doesn’t expect the actual numbers of refugees physically resettled in the country to change much this year. Instead, he described the numbers Biden has discussed as “an aspirational goal and a signal to all the agencies — the resettlement agencies, as well as the governmental ones — we have a policy shift.”
Faith-based organizations have long done the work of welcoming refugees as part of a public-private partnership with the U.S. government. Six of the nine agencies contracted to resettle refugees in the country are faith-based.
They include Episcopal Migration Ministries, HIAS, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief.
For the past four years, those organizations asked the Trump administration to raise the refugee ceiling to its historic average: 95,000.
The president generally sets the refugee ceiling ahead of the beginning of the fiscal year in October, but there’s precedent for changing it at other times, said Jenny Yang, vice president of policy and advocacy on refugee resettlement at World Relief. Trump lowered the number from 110,000 to 50,000 his first week in office. Former President Bill Clinton also adjusted it, to admit additional refugees from Kosovo, during his presidency.
And setting that number at 125,000 wouldn’t be unheard of either: There have been years when it topped 125,000, and it has been as high as 231,700, Yang said.
The U.S. has a “moral” responsibility to settle more people than it has in the past few years at a time when an estimated 80 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes, and about 30 million are refugees, Yang said in a Q&A posted on World Relief’s website — a sentiment Biden echoed in his announcement Thursday.
“There’s no question we’ve completely abdicated our leadership in refugee resettlement,” Yang elaborated to RNS. “We have this historic low refugee ceiling, but it also has ripple effects where other countries around the world are now not accepting refugees either.”
Alvero, of Episcopal Migration Ministries, said Biden is sending the right signals.
“We’re back toward making this a humanitarian program, a lifesaving program, and the United States wants to be a leader once again in assisting refugees, both in overseas aid, as well as in resettlement,” he said.
But it will take time to rebuild.
Agency leaders pointed to the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly slowed the process for refugees seeking to come to the United States.
“The reality is that we’re still dealing with a pandemic, and that puts real, serious obstacles in the way,” Hetfield said.
The HIAS leader explained the pandemic has particularly impacted government officials who work on the front lines of the refugee vetting process abroad. A U.S. policy of holding in-person meetings with refugee applicants — a pre-pandemic practice HIAS has long argued should be phased out in favor of virtual meetings — has hamstrung the process at a time when meeting in person can be dangerous.
“The United States will order people deported based on video interviews,” he said before the text of the order was released. “If you can deport somebody based on a video, I think you should also be able to admit somebody that way, especially somebody whose life is in danger.”
The text of Biden’s executive order does include a section asking the Department of Homeland Security secretary to “consider” ways to “expand refugee vetting and adjudication capacity,” including “permitting the use of video and audio teleconferencing to conduct refugee interviews and establishing the necessary infrastructure to do so.”
Other advocates have raised the alarm that Trump administration policies have severely hobbled the refugee resettlement apparatus here in the U.S.
The administration changed the criteria for refugees to qualify for resettlement in the U.S., shutting out many people the faith-based organizations traditionally helped. And with federal funding following the refugees they work with, and fewer refugees allowed into the country, all six refugee resettlement agencies were forced to lay off staff and close offices or programs across the country. Many staff members — some of whom came into the country as refugees themselves — lost their jobs.
“You’re not just changing policy for a couple of years; you’re dismantling decades of work and relationships that will be nearly impossible to rebuild,” Jen Smyers, the former director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, told RNS in 2019.
Indeed, rebuilding the U.S. apparatus decimated by Trump — which agency leaders said resulted in a third of refugee settlement sites closing their programs — will take some time.
The drastic changes over the past four years caught refugee resettlement agencies by surprise when the program historically has enjoyed bipartisan support, Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization at World Relief, said on a recent call with reporters.
Moving forward, Soerens said, “we won’t make the mistake of just rebuilding everywhere in the country and presuming that the numbers will be stable at the level that we’re projecting for this year indefinitely — we can’t do that.”
Meredith Owen, policy and advocacy director for Church World Service’s refugee program, said the rebuilding process includes everything from identifying new resettlement sites to hiring and training new staff to leasing new buildings.
Even choosing a new location can be complicated: Agencies look for places where there are jobs, affordable housing and faith communities willing to partner with them to support their new neighbors. This also typically requires extensive consultation with local community leaders, such as school administrators.
And there are lingering political concerns. Several agency leaders told RNS they worry about anti-refugee sentiment that spiked during the Trump era and helped spur his administration’s refugee reductions.
“Anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-refugee sentiment, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, which goes back to Jewish refugees in this country — I think they’re often linked,” said Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s office of Migration and Refugee Service.
“We have to be mindful of that. We have to make sure … we recognize the communities that we’re resettling refugees into should be at the same time, in these coming years, working on some of these issues — which are all about kindness to our neighbor, love for our neighbor and, in this case, their new neighbors.”
One thing the past four years has revealed is the need to facilitate important conversations about who refugees are, why the U.S. welcomes them and how that benefits both refugees and their new neighbors, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“There is a real opportunity for us to fight fiction with fact,” she said.
But once things start moving, agencies such as the USCCB and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service think they can turn things around relatively quickly. The USCCB’s refugee program operates through Catholic Charities sites that run various other initiatives for local communities, meaning their buildings remained open even in places where refugee efforts folded.
And it wouldn’t be the first time Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service grew to serve the needs of refugees. After the fall of Saigon in the waning days of the Vietnam War, LIRS transformed from a staff of four to a crisis response operation with a staff of hundreds, according to Vignarajah.
As soon as “the election results became clear,” the Lutheran organization and its colleagues “began working overnight, around the clock, to ensure the infrastructure domestically is rebuilt in order to continue to welcome the stranger and to resurrect a lifesaving program,” she said.
While anti-refugee sentiment is real, agency leaders also expressed optimism that faith-fueled enthusiasm for refugees — spurred in part, they contend, by opposition to Trump and his policies — could accelerate the program’s resurgence.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been reengaging congregations that historically have been committed to refugee resettlement, viewing it “as a matter of faith,” Vignarajah said.
“They’ve been sitting on the sidelines, eagerly awaiting a return to this being a bipartisan program, a return to America exercising its global humanitarian leadership,” she said.
Hetfield, of HIAS, added, “I know the American Jewish community is really enthusiastic to start welcoming refugees again.
“We’ve had a lot more volunteers than we’ve had refugees in the last four years. It’ll be nice to be able to put them to good use and to reengage with these communities that want to welcome refugees.”
They already have allies within the government: After years at Church World Service, Smyers — who previously expressed concern about the “nearly impossible” task of rebuilding what has been lost over the past four years — began a new job this week as chief of staff at the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Before Thursday’s announcement, Serweri said he was feeling optimistic.
Within a year of arriving in the U.S., he found a job as a case manager for Iris (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), an Episcopal Migration Ministries affiliate in Connecticut, and he and his wife welcomed their second child.
He has seen the impact the policies of the past four years have had on Iris and other agencies, as well as on the refugees they serve.
Serweri said he’d heard “good news” from Biden on the campaign trail and is happy that it seems the president plans to treat the refugee crisis as the humanitarian issue Serweri believes it to be — not the political issue it has become in recent years.
“Unfortunately it was overpoliticized, and it affected a lot of refugees,” he said.
He hopes his neighbors who see refugees in terms of politics will “just for one moment put themselves in the shoes of refugees,” he said. Get to know them, hear their stories, learn how they contribute to the U.S.
Understand the challenges that caused them to come to the country when, he said, “nobody and no one would like to voluntarily flee their country of origin. A country is like a mother.”
“This has nothing to do with politics,” Serweri said.
“It is a very American, sacred value.”