The Trump administration announced last week that it would cap the number of refugees permitted to enter the United States in 2019 at 30,000 — the lowest number since the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was started by an act of Congress in 1980. As LNP staff writer Sam Janesch reported in last week’s Sunday LNP, the Lancaster office of Church World Service has had to adjust to the straitened flow of refugees into the country. “The Lancaster organization has so far resettled 147 refugees in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 and that number is expected to reach 160 with the arrival of two more families by the end of the month. The previous fiscal year, in 2016-17, that number was 279, and the year before that (the last full fiscal year President Barack Obama), it was 407,” Janesch reported.
Lancaster city is proud of its reputation as “America’s refugee capital,” a label bestowed on it by BBC News.
As Janesch noted, the distinction has attracted no less than Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who visited Lancaster in April 2017. As we’ve noted, it’s a legacy of this county’s tradition — rooted for many in faith — of welcoming the stranger.
Now, one such stranger turned city resident, Ahmad Mohamed Zein, has a question for us all: “Out of mercy, out of compassion, if someone comes to you and they are fleeing for their lives, they are fleeing violence, wouldn’t you protect them?” he said through an interpreter. “Wouldn’t you provide them with a shelter?”
Zein is safe in Lancaster with his wife and four children, two of whom have disabilities. But as Janesch reported, “Four of his eight children have still not made it to America, even though they all went through the two-year vetting process together after fleeing to Turkey in 2012 when planes began dropping bombs and killing civilians in their hometown of Aleppo.”
Aleppo, of course, is in Syria, which continues to be ravaged by civil war. Imagine an ordinary father’s concerns, raised by orders of magnitude.
‘Shining city on a hill’
For people facing danger and violence, the United States long has been a refuge — the “shining city on a hill” as President Ronald Reagan, invoking the language of Puritan John Winthrop, described our nation.
That shining city may be losing its luster.
For a nation as wealthy and traditionally generous as ours to open the doors to only 30,000 refugees next year is deeply disappointing.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the “number of refugees resettled in the United States decreased more than in any other country in 2017.”
“This represents the first time since the adoption of the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act that the U.S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. The U.S. has historically led the world in refugee resettlement.”
We know that for some of our readers, this marked change will be welcome news. As a couple of letters to the editor in today’s Sunday LNP indicate, there are people in need here, too.
But as an op-ed also points out today, fewer refugees — and fewer immigrants — will mean a less vibrant county economy. “At a time when our unemployment rate is at historic lows and the need for employees is at historic highs, the immigrant and refugee population is an absolutely essential piece of our ability to continue to grow the local economy,” write Lancaster Chamber President and CEO Tom Baldrige and Lancaster County Community Foundation President and CEO Sam Bressi.
At some point, perhaps after the November midterms, some brave politicians — Democrats and Republicans, working together — are going to need to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
There are the economic reasons for welcoming refugees. And then there are the moral ones.
People fleeing war, violence and persecution cannot be corralled forever in refugee camps. They are human beings who deserve some permanent escape from the harm visited on them by tyrants, warlords and torturers.
The Trump administration has said it wants to ensure that refugees are vetted thoroughly. And they are.
According to the U.S. Department of State, their applications are processed by a Resettlement Support Center, which collects “biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare for the adjudication interview and for security screening. Enhanced security screening is a joint responsibility of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and includes the participation of multiple U.S. Government security agencies.”
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services review each applicant’s information and conduct an in-person interview. The applicant also undergoes a health screening, and must be assured sponsorship from a U.S.-based resettlement agency.
Church World Service is one such agency. Sheila Mastropietro, director of that nonprofit’s Lancaster office, said the president’s decision to cap refugees at 30,000 in 2019 “was devastating to all of us who have worked to build a program that has, since 1980, provided a home to the world's most vulnerable, a place where they can rebuild their lives in safety and freedom.”
She added: “We grieve for the refugees who now face increasingly dismal chances at finding safety, as well as refugee families still waiting to be reunited with loved ones.”
We grieve for them, too.
Mastropietro cited the “hundreds of generous and giving churches, mosques, and temples in Lancaster County,” and individual “Lancastrians, businesses, civic groups, schools, universities, even running clubs in Lancaster,” which have helped to resettle refugees here.
“By cutting refugee admission numbers and weakening the resettlement program, the administration is keeping people in Lancaster County and across the nation from living out their biblical call to welcome those fleeing war and persecution,” Mastropietro said.
So how do we as a county, and a nation, ensure that Reagan’s characterization of the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill” remains true?
In his view, it remained so in 1989 when he said, in his farewell address, that this country was still “a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
It’s going to take leadership if this nation is going to live up to that legacy.
Rep. Lloyd Smucker was a voice for immigrants in the state Senate. We’d like him to show some of that same independence in advocating for refugees in Washington. Mastropietro and other advocates have asked him to join the bipartisan congressional Refugee Caucus. His spokesman, Bill Jaffee, noted Friday that there are 505 caucuses in the U.S. House and the Refugee Caucus has 13 members.
It could use at least one more.
In joining, Smucker would be honoring this county’s tradition of welcoming those most in need of refuge. It’s a tradition worth fighting to protect.