Eliza Asende’s home in Lancaster city, which she shares with three of her sisters and two of their children, is already crowded. But she’d happily accommodate her other sister’s family of five if it meant they’d be allowed to come to the United States. 

Asende and her family in Lancaster would even return to a refugee camp in Africa if it meant they could be together, they said Monday through an interpreter. 

Asende’s sister, her sister’s husband and their three children are currently living in a refugee camp in Tanzania after fleeing the many armed conflicts in their native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her sister’s family was scheduled to arrive in Lancaster on March 4, which would have been the first reunion of the sisters since 2015.

Asende, who has lived in Lancaster city since 2016, was told about the early March arrival date shortly after President Joe Biden took office in January. But when the date approached, Biden had not yet signed a presidential determination setting the number of refugees who would be allowed to resettle in the country in 2021. Without that action, Asende’s sister and her family in Tanzania had to cancel their flight to the United States.

Now, Asende and her sisters don’t know when their other sibling will arrive, as the Biden administration has postponed setting the 2021 refugee admission cap until at least May 15. 

“I feel so bad, I’m struggling a lot because I wish she could come,” Eliza Asende said, adding of her sister, “They are struggling, they are suffering a lot.”

Asende and her family are not alone in waiting for the president to act. A family of three originally scheduled to resettle in Lancaster in March is waiting at a refugee camp in Rwanda, said Church World Service director Valentina Ross. 

The Biden administration initially announced it would raise the refugee cap to 62,500 for this year, news that set refugee resettlement agencies like Church World Service to work preparing to assist more families. In the cases of Asende’s sister and the family in Rwanda, the agency had already put down security deposits on apartments in Lancaster city and had begun furnishing them. 

But the refugee resettlement community was caught by surprise last week when the White House announced the refugee cap would remain at 15,000, a historically low number set by former President Donald Trump. After widespread protests from refugee agencies and human rights groups, the Biden administration quickly backtracked, setting the May 15 deadline for announcing a new cap for 2021. 

In former President Barack Obama’s final year in office, he set the refugee ceiling at 110,000. A year later under Trump, that number was cut by more than half — to 45,000 refugees and, ultimately, to 15,000 for fiscal year 2021. 

Biden’s election last fall had raised hopes at Church World Services and similar groups because they expected a significant reversal of the low numbers of refugees permitted to resettle during Trump’s four years in office. Biden, in fact, campaigned on a promise to reverse this and raise the cap to 125,000 by fiscal year 2022.

“We have been feeling hopeful since the Biden administration took office,” Ross said. “It’s been really detrimental these last four years. We really witnessed the American government abdicating its moral leadership.”

Church World Service hasn’t worked with any new refugees since January, an unusually long period without any resettlement activity, Ross said. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the historically low refugee cap set by Trump, they are expecting less than half of the 300 individuals they traditionally resettle in Lancaster every year. Between October 2019 and September 2020, the organization resettled only 98 individuals.

For refugees caught in the impasse, the delays threaten to undermine years of work put into the complicated process of applying for resettlement. That process can take many years of security clearances, health screenings, and in-person interviews, according to the International Rescue Committee, which aids displaced persons in 40 countries around the world. In some cases, refugees can spend decades in refugee camps, waiting to either return to their home countries or for permission to resettle in another.

But these clearances and screenings expire, meaning once refugees are approved to resettle, they have a “Travel By'' date they must meet or they’ll need to restart much of the application process. For example, the family scheduled to resettle in Lancaster from Rwanda may already be in the position of reapplying as they had a “travel by” date of April 16.

“These are human beings looking to find safety and many of them have been looking to find that for over 20 years, decisions like this have real impact on people’s ability to find safety and hope for their families. It’s really important these decisions are made quickly,” said Rachel Helwig, the communications director for CWS.  

Asende’s sister and her sister’s family had already prepared to leave the refugee camp in Tanzania in early March, giving away or selling much of their belongings to others in the camp. 

So when their flight was abruptly canceled and their resettlement was put on hold, they were left without the household goods and other necessities. The family of five is sharing food intended to feed just two people, their mother and a brother, Asende said.

“Please help us so that they can come here, because it’s not good,” Asende said.

Posing for a photo in their home, an LNP | LancasterOnline photographer directed the sisters to smile.

“How could we smile if we can’t see our sister?” said Ecochi Machozi, one of the sisters. “How could we smile if we are not happy?”

“We wish she could come,” said Bora Mlebinge, another sister.

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