Where Are the Refugees?

Resettlement advocates need to answer some questions themselves

By Nayla Rush on April 9, 2018

Virulent condemnations continue to follow the drop in refugee admissions under the Trump administration.

Those who are quick to denounce a cut in numbers shy away from challenging the fairness of the selection process for those to be resettled or the reliability of an archaic refugee system. But by admitting fewer refugees, the Trump administration has the opportunity to reassess and improve an imperfect refugee resettlement program and enhance the screening and vetting process of refugees. It can also work at reducing an untenable backlog of asylum seekers by diverting some of its refugee program resources towards the asylum process.

The latest appeal for more resettlement came from 353 religious leaders and 76 faith-based organizations across faith traditions who wrote President Trump "decrying low refugee arrivals" – only 10,548 in the first half of the fiscal year (October 1, 2017- March 31, 2018). The signatories believe it is "our moral duty" to welcome the "world's most vulnerable" and fear the United States is "on track to provide life-saving resettlement to less than half of the people the administration promised to welcome by the end of the fiscal year [45,000]." (Emphasis added.) Refugee resettlement, they explain, is an "option for those who cannot return to their home country due to ongoing violence or for reasons of personal safety, and who cannot stay in the country into which they have fled." (Emphasis added.)

But, as I keep repeating (see here and here), refugees with no specific vulnerabilities or urgent needs are being resettled in the U.S. Most refugees resettled here were not in danger in their country of first asylum. Many were probably suffering from unemployment, destitution, and despair – but so are thousands, perhaps millions, of their compatriots.

So I ask these men and women of faith who wrote the president, where is our moral responsibility to make sure refugees are not randomly picked to come here by the staff of the UN refugee agency that the United States relies on for refugee resettlement referrals? Do they think it is ethically acceptable to offer a "lucky few" a better life in the U.S. while leaving others who are undergoing similar hardships behind? I personally find this absolute power – akin to playing God – disturbing.

These are issues I would like addressed by religious leaders, faith-based organizations, resettlement contractors, and every refugee advocate who is outraged by the slowing pace of refugee arrivals.

Refugee protection with all its complexity deserves other queries than just #WhereRTheRefugees?

The refugee resettlement program needs to be reformed. This entails slowing down arrivals in order to reassess and improve the whole processing and vetting system. What is also needed is addressing the pressing asylum backlog that is affecting hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in the U.S for their cases to be adjudicated. For that to happen, refugee admissions are also set to decrease as resources from refugee processing need to be diverted towards the asylum system in order to reduce the backlog.

In a hearing on refugee admissions last fall, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna explained the need to limit refugee admissions in FY 2018 to improve vetting processes: "For FY 2018, the President has set the refugee admissions ceiling at 45,000. This ceiling takes into account the need to implement enhanced security and integrity measures."

Despite claims by the previous administration that refugees face the most rigorous vetting process, Cissna stressed the need to do more:

The processes that we have long had in place could have been improved and will be improved. Some of the things we are doing: we are enhancing and increasing the types of information we are collecting from people, we are improving our interview processes and the guidance to the people in the field to conduct interviews to rule out fraud and determine credibility, and finally the types of checks we are doing on people are also being expanded and enhanced to ensure that we get the most possible value from those types of investigations.

Cissna also underlined the need to address the asylum backlog for both humanitarian and national security reasons. To that end, refugee officers will be reassigned to asylum cases:

The ceiling [45,000 for FY 2018] also represents the recognition that our nation's humanitarian protection strategy extends beyond traditional refugee resettlement to the significant work being done by USCIS to process asylum claims for hundreds of thousands of claimants who already are in the United States, in our communities. USCIS' current asylum backlog has reached nearly 300,000 cases and continues to grow... Delays in the timely processing of asylum applications are detrimental to legitimate asylum seekers. Furthermore, while a series of security checks are initiated when an asylum application is filed, lingering backlogs can be exploited and used to undermine national security and the integrity of the asylum system. For example, the existence of significant backlogs may attract applicants who submit frivolous asylum applications solely to obtain employment authorization, knowing that they will wait months or years in the backlog before their claim can be heard and denied…USCIS is identifying all available resources to begin to address the growing asylum backlog and prioritize the processing of asylum seekers domestically while discouraging frivolous filings… USCIS will deploy some of its refugee officers to support the asylum program, allowing USCIS to adjudicate thousands of additional asylum applications during the fiscal year...

Improving the screening and vetting of refugees and reducing the untenable asylum backlog cannot be achieved without decreasing the number of refugee admissions. Asylum seekers deserve better assistance. In the words of Cissna: "The way we look at it, the asylum work that we do is complementary to the refugee work. These are all vulnerable populations. These are people seeking relief under the same standard."

Refugee advocates should support measures aimed at improving the processing and vetting of refugees, keeping Americans safe, and providing asylum seekers present in our communities quicker resolution of their cases.