Forty Years on, Why the U.S. Should Continue To Welcome Refugees

This year, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program marks its 40th anniversary. As the historic global leader of refugee resettlement, the United States of America has welcomed more than three million refugees over the past 40 years — an achievement of which it can be legitimately proud and that deserves to continue in the future.

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Since its launch in 1980, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has allowed the country to welcome more than 3 million people. Today, 176,000 refugees are healthcare workers, and 175,000 refugees are food supply chain workers in the country. Photo: A refugee from Africa receives his U.S. resettlement certificate in the 1980s. © ICMC

Third-country refugee resettlement offers a safe and hope-filled future to refugees who can neither safely return home nor remain in safety and dignity in their first country of asylum. While those needing resettlement comprise a small percentage of the over 26 million refugees globally, they still amount to nearly 1.5 million people. But in fact, only 1% of all refugees in the world are actually resettled to a third country.

Religious organizations have long been engaged in refugee resettlement to the United States. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has resettled nearly one million refugees. USCCB partners with the U.S. government and with local Catholic Charities across the country to — in the words of Pope Francis — welcome, protect, promote and integrate refugees.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) plays a vital role in the resettlement of refugees to the United States through its Resettlement Support Center for Turkey and the Middle East, based in Istanbul and Beirut. Its staff process applications of refugees referred by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, for resettlement within the framework of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. ICMC staff assist refugee applicants through all stages of the resettlement process, providing services carefully focused on the unique needs of those whom they serve.

We also maintain communication and collaborative relationships with all nine U.S. domestic resettlement agencies, including those associated with the Catholic Church through the USCCB. It is these agencies that accompany refugees once they arrive, helping them to find housing, enroll in schools, access health care, find a job, learn English and obtain counseling and referrals for mental health assistance when needed.

A Rewarding Experience

In the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, I was personally engaged in resettling refugees to the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, where I served as the Director of the Diocesan Caritas (Catholic Charities agency) and of Services to Refugees and Migrants. This assignment offered me first-hand experience of what it takes to welcome “the other”.

In those days, we were resettling Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Cuban, Haitian and Eastern European refugees. I remember the long nights of waiting at airports for their arrival, the early mornings of driving the refugees to factories where they were able to find work, introducing families to shopping at supermarkets, hearing their stories of persecution and abuse in their home countries and in some transit countries through which they passed. I learned the meaning of freedom, opportunity and democracy, which they received with many thanks… and which I had previously taken for granted.

I remember the Vietnamese mother and her two sons whom we helped to resettle in New Jersey. Whenever I visited the family, I noticed the mother’s sad face and red eyes. When I asked what was troubling her, she told me that she had a daughter who got lost when the family was fleeing Saigon and was now blocked in China. That set me on an adventure to secure a reunification visa for young Betty, whom I joyfully met when she arrived at New York, some two years after we initiated these efforts.

In 1980, I was also privileged to serve at the ICMC’s field operation in Bataan, Philippines, where I helped to design a cultural orientation program for Southeast Asian refugees. It was a curious experience to explain the use of Western toilets, payment of bills with bank checks, the celebration of Thanksgiving and the American penchant for drinking large quantities of milk. All this while I was sitting under the boiling sun in a refugee camp with Vietnamese, Laotian and Khmer refugees  listening to my words through the voices of three translators.

I remember sitting next to a Cambodian man during an evening dance recital; I commented to him on the graceful performance we had just witnessed. He told me that the young dancer was his daughter and that his wife and all his other children had been killed by the Khmer Rouge; he hoped he would never again face such oppression or violence once he arrived in the U.S.

A Beacon of Hope

In ICMC’s work throughout the world, we meet refugees every day who are unable to return safely to their home countries and yet cannot be integrated to their current country of asylum. They are therefore forced to languish in a country where they are neither safe nor welcome. Libya stands out as one such country where refugees are often subjected to abuse and might be sold into slavery. Legal experts whom ICMC deploys to work in UNHCR offices in Niger and elsewhere are now providing assistance and protection to such refugees who have been evacuated from Libya.

Between 1980 and 2016, the U.S. welcomed an average of 95,000 refugees per year. During that time, the refugee admissions program always enjoyed strong bi-partisan support. Regrettably, the refugee resettlement ceiling has been significantly reduced over the past three years, reaching the historical lows of 18,000 in fiscal year 2020 and 15,000 for fiscal year 2021. The Catholic Bishops of the U.S. recently wrote, “… the low number of [refugee] admissions, given the global need and the capacity and wealth of the United States, is heartbreaking.”

With such a drastic reduction in arrivals, more than one-third of U.S. local Catholic Charities agencies in the country were forced to shut down their resettlement programs while the remaining programs were forced to drastically reduce the number of refugees they could welcome.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a shut-down of the global and U.S. resettlement programs for several months; when travel was resumed, ICMC was able to get clearance for approximately 800 departures to the U.S. between July and September. But then the program was shut down once again.

As the U.S. emerges from the recent presidential election cycle, I must admit that I am curious about potential changes to this country’s recent tendency to close in on itself, despite the fact that it was literally built by immigrants and refugees. Some rays of light have begun to appear on the horizon. During his campaign, President-elect Joseph Biden promised to raise the country’s annual refugee admission target to 125,000 people ― a level more in line with the country’s tradition. 

After his election, Mr. Biden declared “The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a leader in resettling refugees in our humanitarian response.” And he promised to “reclaim that proud legacy for our country.”

Refugees in the U.S. have been recognized for their contributions to the economy and the social fabric of the country. With 176,000 refugees serving as healthcare workers and 175,000 working in the food supply chain, refugees are essential workers in their communities. These and many other refugees and migrants in the U.S. distinguished themselves as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many studies have demonstrated that resettled refugees contribute more to local host communities (through taxes, public service, entrepreneurship and volunteer service) than they receive in any initial benefits extended to them when they first arrive.

As the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program enters its fifth decade of existence, I sincerely hope that it can be renewed and strengthened to provide safety, protection and opportunities for restored dignity for those forced to flee their home countries due to war, persecution or conflict around the world. We can be sure that resettled refugees remain open and willing to contribute their hard work and expertise and to share their cultural gifts with those who welcome them in the United States and in all other countries of the world.

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo *

* Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo is Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission. A shorter version of this article was published by the Swiss Catholic news website in German.

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