The U.S. Marks World Refugee Day, Even as It Accepts Fewer Refugees

Jeff Gammage / The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Monday is World Refugee Day, the annual honoring of those forced to flee dangerous homelands and try to rebuild their lives in new countries.

But in the United States this year, there are fewer refugees to celebrate.

The latest admissions figures are paltry, with 1,898 people admitted in May.

That means the U.S. is on track to resettle only 18,962 refugees in fiscal 2022 — a fraction of the 125,000 ceiling set by President Joe Biden.

This at a moment when the global number of people driven from their homes by violence or persecution has surpassed 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other conflicts, according to the United Nations.

“The U.S. not stepping up to take on more capacity, it’s personally making me feel sad, as an American,” said Mustafa Nuur, 29, who came to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a refugee eight years ago, after terrorists killed his father in Somalia. “I know what America means to the rest of the world, the freedom and the safety.”

Philadelphia city officials will recognize World Refugee Day by issuing a proclamation during the annual gathering of the Refugee Resettlement Provider’s Collaborative, to be held June 26.

Today, as the national numbers stagnate, immigration experts question why the U.S. government rushes to invent new, crisis-driven welcome programs like “Uniting for Ukraine,” rather than rebuild the existing refugee program to make it faster and more effective — and the best, primary means to bring some of the world’s most vulnerable people to safety.

Instead, battered by former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda and by COVID-19, the system struggles to admit even small numbers. And that holds crucial implications not just for refugees but also for the future of the United States and its economy.

“One of the key problems is the process just takes too long, anywhere from two to 10 years,” said Danilo Zak, policy and advocacy manager for the National Immigration Forum in Washington. “The program is just not at a place where it can respond in an agile and effective way. If the pipeline is too slow we’re just not going to see those [larger] numbers.”

The United Nations counts 26.6 million refugees worldwide, a new record. An additional 50.9 million people have been internally displaced, meaning they were forced to leave their home but not their country.

So far this fiscal year, 12,641 refugees have been admitted to the United States.

Their top home countries are Syria, 3,007; Democratic Republic of Congo, 2,927; and Sudan, 1,233.

This year 562 refugees have arrived in Pennsylvania, with 110 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And 172 refugees have gone to New Jersey, where Guatemala, with 53 people, is the largest homeland.

It’s not that the United States isn’t welcoming people in trouble.

It’s still resettling 76,000 Afghan war allies who were evacuated as the Taliban took over the country in August. And it’s accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainians under the Biden administration’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program.

But it’s not bringing in many refugees, which is a specific and important designation.

While the Afghans and Ukrainians may be refugees by definition — people who fled their country to escape persecution — almost none are refugees by immigration status.

Almost all the Afghans and many Ukrainians arrived and are arriving under what’s called humanitarian parole, which is merely a permission to enter the country, not an immigration classification.

That means they have no automatic right to the housing, medical, job, and social programs that go to legal refugees. Congress has passed laws, and the administration implemented policies, to provide some benefits. But without refugee status, those newcomers have no clear path to staying permanently in this country.

Many Afghans are having to apply for asylum, an expensive and uncertain undertaking, and Ukrainians are unsure what will happen once their visas or other temporary protections expire.

On the other hand, refugees are required to seek lawful permanent residency after a year in the United States. And five years after receiving those green cards, they can apply to become U.S. citizens.

“Our immigration system does this over and over again,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, one of Philadelphia’s major immigrant-assistance organizations. “We have a [refugee] system in place that would make sense, but the system becomes overwhelmed, by COVID, by staffing issues. Instead of fixing that, we end up creating a new system.”

Her staff routinely must explain to Ukrainian newcomers that they’re not legal refugees; that they can obtain a work permit, but it could take time; and that they could be entitled to some benefits but not others.

“It’s created all this chaos,” Miller-Wilson said. “They’re thinking they’re coming in as refugees — they’re fleeing war and persecution. And then we say, ‘You want to file for asylum?’ ”

When Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, it anticipated a big and comprehensive operation, with an annual cap on arrivals of 231,700. That figure dropped over the years, hovering around 70,000 or 80,000 under former President Barack Obama.

Trump slashed refugee admissions to record lows, setting the ceiling for fiscal 2020 at 18,000 and lowering it the next year to 15,000. He cut overseas staff that processed applications. The pandemic introduced new delays as it halted required, face-to-face interviews between applicants and U.S. investigators.

Biden issued orders to rebuild and enhance the refugee program, saying it promotes stability in unsettled regions and encourages nation-to-nation cooperation. It also reinforces America’s long, if frayed, standing as “a beacon of hope for persecuted people.” This month the president committed to spending more money and hiring more people to increase resettlement of refugees.

“Refugee resettlement, it’s not just the ‘nice thing’ to do,” Zak said, “it’s an economic imperative.”

The United States faces a labor shortage across nearly every state and industry, struggling with 11.4 million job openings and 6 million unemployed workers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That means even if every jobless person found a job, the country would still need to fill 5.4 million positions.

Research shows refugees are fast learners and hard workers — it took intellect and strength to get here in the first place. They bring new and diverse ideas, their turnover rate is low, and the first hire at a particular business often serves as a gateway to recruiting friends and family members to fill openings.

“The staffing crisis and the economy, there are real issues that can be solved by immigration,” Miller-Wilson said.

Today many people know Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu, as the setting for the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” 

The Africa-coast nation of 12.4 million has long been torn by civil war, insurgency, and genocide, with 77% of the people in poverty, subsisting on $1.90 a day. Nearly 900,000 have fled to neighboring countries, making Somalis one of the world’s largest refugee populations.

Nuur was 11 when he fled with his family to neighboring Kenya, spending the next 10 years in refugee camps. He came to the United States at 21.

Today, in Lancaster, he’s a small-business owner, helping to run his brother’s transportation firm and also his own endeavor, Bridge.

It works to connect the public with cultural experiences offered by local refugees, aiming to build understanding and respect by bringing people together for food and conversation.

“Getting here [has] given me a lot of opportunity,” Nuur said, but it shouldn’t have taken a decade. “The U.S. is based on being the country that’s offered sanctuary and safety to people around the world. We need to honor that commitment and allow more refugees to come.”

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