Refugee Forum

Christine Baer of Church World Service welcomes the audience to a refugee forum in 2018 at Lancaster Theological Seminary.


President Joe Biden announced plans Thursday to increase the annual cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States to more than eight times the level of the previous presidential administration. Former President Donald Trump had “drastically reduced the cap to only 15,000,” The Associated Press explained. “Biden’s plan would raise it to 125,000. ... Biden, through executive order, also called for rescinding Trump-era rules that resulted in excessive vetting of applicants, expanding capacity for adjudicating applications for refugee applications, and other steps.”

The main image on Church World Service Lancaster’s website the day after President Biden’s announcement featured the all-caps statement "REFUGEES ARE WELCOME HERE” in front of a background of brilliant fireworks.

Indeed, this news is cause for celebration in our community, which prides itself on providing opportunities to vulnerable people who seek safety and a new beginning in America.

It was a moment to cheer precisely because there were so many dispiriting developments during the four years of the Trump administration for separated refugee families, refugee resettlement agencies (like Church World Service) and the communities — like Lancaster — that have strong traditions of welcoming the stranger.

Of course, the Biden administration’s return to a philosophical approach that also was championed by President Barack Obama won’t take effect overnight. As Biden noted Thursday, “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”

How badly? “The United States admitted 11,814 refugees between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020 — lower than any other year since the start of the refugee program decades ago, and barely 14 percent of the number admitted in the last year of the Obama administration,” The Washington Post reported. “Some states last year counted their newly arrived refugees in the single digits.”

America’s doors were closed to too many worldwide who needed refuge from violence and extreme hardship. The heartlessness of the Trump administration limited the extent to which families from war-torn countries such as Syria could be reunited here.

The Post further explained that Biden’s statement will not alone “be enough to reopen the valve to actual refugee arrivals on U.S. soil, as the effort will take considerable time and resources.” Those efforts must incorporate the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Once refugees are cleared by the U.S. government to come to the United States, they are resettled with the help of nongovernmental resettlement organizations, many of them faith-based charities,” the Post wrote. “These organizations work in partnership with the federal government, placing refugee families in local housing and helping them to connect with schools and employers.”

Some of those charities and agencies, however, were financially decimated by the reduced flow of refugees during the Trump years. It will take time for them to get back on their feet — so they can help those who arrive from around the globe get their own sure footing.

It is vital from a humanitarian standpoint that the system be pieced back together. We agree with the view of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which wrote of the United States’ moral obligation, as one of the world’s wealthiest democracies, to help dispossessed people.

“It is who we are as a nation,” that editorial board wrote. “Refugees seek resettlement because they do not have homes to which they can return safely, often because they face persecution on account of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or politics. As a society, we believe in personal freedom, in the right to openly discuss political views without fear of retribution, to hold and express religious beliefs (or to not believe at all), and that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.”

Valentina Ross, director of Church World Service Lancaster, said last October that the U.S. under Trump had abdicated “its responsibility to offer safe haven to the most vulnerable, at a time when the world is facing the worst displacement crisis in history.”

Last June, several Lancaster County residents — former refugees themselves — wrote op-eds for LNP | LancasterOnline about what it means for America to welcome refugees and how they make us stronger as a nation and as a community.

“Many refugees accomplish incredible things, given the opportunity,” wrote Bhim Thapaliya, a former refugee who graduated from Elizabethtown College and is now an entrepreneur and advocate for refugee and immigrant communities. “Like me, they want nothing more than to contribute to the place that gave them so much.”

Under Biden, we can hope to get back on track. And Lancaster County can perhaps return to being a leader in refugee resettlement. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko noted last year, “Lancaster was dubbed as the ‘Refugee Capital’ by BBC in 2017 based on the county’s reception of 1,300 refugees from 2013 to 2017 — 20 times more per capita than the U.S. as a whole.”

This was not just good for those whom we welcomed, but for the companies for which they ended up working and our local economy, which benefited from the businesses they started.

Under the Biden administration, we can hope to be that capital again.

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