While Washington and much of America is fixated on impeachment, whistleblowers, and Ukraine, on Thursday, the Trump administration proposed a record low limit for refugee resettlement of 18,000 for FY2020 along with an Executive Order that could amount to a de facto refugee ban for much of America. Rumors had circulated for weeks that the refugee cap might be set at zero—or close to it—so when the ceiling of 18,000 was released, the number appeared to be a bit better than it could have been.
But, it really wasn’t. Here’s why.
Built in to the Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement is a requirement for state and local jurisdictions to consent to receive refugees before any can be placed with them. Section 2 states,
Consent of States and Localities to the Placement of Refugees. (a) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall develop and implement a process to determine whether the State and locality both consent, in writing, to the resettlement of refugees within the State and locality, before refugees are resettled within that State and locality under the Program. The Secretary of State shall publicly release any written consents of States and localities to resettlement of refugees.
It goes on to say that if the state or locality does not express written consent to receive refugees, they will not be resettled there. How that consent is derived is undetermined at this time, but it appears that refugee resettlement could be halted during the 90 days that the secretary of State and secretary of Health and Human Services have to work out the details. Will local city councils have to vote on this? Will governors of states have to decide to receive or reject refugees? This has always been a federal decision, with state and local consultation attending, but never has consent been required before refugees can be resettled. There is no apparatus for this.
Since refugees can be resettled within 50 miles of a resettlement office, will every town have to also give consent along with their state before they can receive a refugee family from Iraq or Sudan? Will there be debates in city council meetings in places like Spartanburg, South Carolina about whether or not a Rohingya family from Myanmar can be resettled there? This could become incredibly divisive on a local level.
Over the past few years, I’ve watched churches, such as Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia led by Pastor Bryant Wright reach out and welcome refugees. Wright is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who led his church, in the face of opposition, to minister to Syrian Refugees in 2015. Johnson Ferry’s example was followed by many churches across the South.
I even watched Southern Baptists pass a resolution on refugees in 2016 to encourage them to “welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne.” Now that refugee admissions are being reduced to levels so low that the whole resettlement system is in danger of collapse, will evangelicals continue to promote a Biblical view of receiving some of the most vulnerable people in the world?
I’ve also heard the fears and concerns of people that worried about who refugees were and where they came from. Most of those fears were alleviated over time once people got to know the refugees and realized that they were victims of violence who fled for their lives. I got to see Christian compassion emerge and replace fear as people obeyed Biblical commands to welcome the stranger in their midst.
But, I’ve also observed first-hand how those fears could easily be stirred up by politicians, pundits, and nationalist groups promoting the idea that vulnerable refugee families from Syria, Iraq, or Sudan (even if they are persecuted Christians or former military interpreters who risked their lives to help our troops), pose a threat to our way of life. Even for Evangelical Christians, who make up a large portion of President Trump’s base, I’ve seen the clear teachings of Scripture subverted to the reality that opposition to refugees can we whipped up by those promoting fear over faith and sacrificial love.
The truth is, there are groups and individuals throughout the country dedicated to making life miserable for politicians who are friendly to refugees or immigrants. Giving these groups the ability to oppose refugee resettlement in states and localities during an election year serves Trump well politically. As a conservative, I agree with the concept of people on a local level being able to govern themselves as much as possible without federal interference. But, granting states and towns the ability to reject vulnerable people who have been legally admitted to the United States could create some very divisive situations going forward.
All of this sets up a significant conflict in the next few months. As the nativist voices rise and put pressure on governors and mayors to reject even the slow trickle of refugees now arriving to the United States because of the new 18,000 cap—while millions more languish in camps around the world—will Christians in the American South and elsewhere speak up in defense of their own long-standing ministry to refugees? Or, will they grow quiet as the door is closed to the persecuted?
And that door isn’t just closing to refugees who come through the official refugee resettlement system. It’s also closing to persecuted Christians who are asylum seekers. When Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was asked last week if persecuted Christians seeking asylum at our border would be accepted or not, his answer was direct: “We’ll turn them back.”
Cuccinelli went on to say, “If they haven’t tried to claim asylum in a country they’ve come through—this doesn’t apply to people from Mexico, for instance—then under the now-existing asylum rule, they no longer qualify.”
All of this maneuvering to dismantle refugee resettlement and close the door to asylum seekers while sending the most vulnerable back to Mexico (48,000 have been sent to Mexico to wait through the Migrant Protection Protocols so far) or other countries, such Honduras and El Salvador, will create political flashpoints that will be exploited in the 2020 election season by both Republicans and Democrats.
But the question about whether or not to receive refugees is no longer just for Congress and the president. It is a question for all of us. And how we answer that question could give significant insight into whether Trumpian Nationalism will be a definitive feature of our national direction, our churches, and our communities going forward, or whether this particular facet of rejecting the vulnerable refugee and migrant will have been a bridge too far.