Among the commitments made for his administration’s first 100 days in office, Joe Biden has promised to reverse Trump-era policies on the admission of refugees into the United States. Specifically, Biden has promised to raise the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. during his first year in office to 125 thousand, a significant increase from the current levels of around 25 thousand per year.
Given the increasingly grave threats faced by religious minorities in many regions of the world, especially Christians, a careful change of national policy in this area is desperately needed. To understand why, the refugee issue must first be untangled from the larger issue of immigration.
Immigration levels are determined by a combination of factors, mostly having to do with national economic interests. Refugee levels are, or at least should be, a matter of humanitarian concern. In recent years, the two issues have been conflated, partly by government failures on immigration and partly by increasingly passionate political loyalties. They shouldn’t be conflated.
A refugee, as officially defined by the Refugee Resettlement Program, is someone who fled their country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The number of refugees around the world has reached its highest point since the end of World War II. Most are from the Middle East, where wars throughout the region have caused millions, including millions of Christians, to flee their homes. ISIS, for example, was birthed out of instability in Iraq and Syria, and their targeting of Christians and Yazidis was eventually (and rightly) called genocide.
In African countries such as Burkina Faso and, especially, Nigeria, Christians are broadly and violently targeted by their non-Christians neighbors. In Nigeria, where Boko Haram and militant Fulani herdsman have killed, injured, kidnapped, and displaced thousands of Christians, the situation has also been labeled “genocide” by the Internal Committee on Nigeria.
In China, the Communist Party has not only declared war on Christians, with pastors and Christian leaders both on the mainland and in Hong Kong fleeing and seeking sanctuary elsewhere but has also targeted the Muslim Uighur population in ways reminiscent of the Nazi Holocaust.
About a year ago, I noted that certain promises made to persecuted Christians by the Trump Administration, including by Vice-President Mike Pence, had not been kept. In particular, the number of refugee admissions into the United States has been reduced to a level that Mindy Belz of World Magazine has labeled “cruel and unusual.”
To be clear, the administration has pursued “a new, practical focus on assisting refugees where they are concentrated,” using foreign assistance and other tools “to resolve the crisis points that drive displacement in the first place.” The administration also appointed former governor Sam Brownback as the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and hosted two international ministerial conferences for advancing religious freedom.
New approaches like this are needed and are welcome. Ultimately, we want the number of refugees reduced, and that will require that religious freedom and protections for religious minorities be advanced around the world. And, simply put, most people don’t want to leave their countries, their families, and their homes behind.
In other words, there are things that can be done to help refugees, both Christian and non-Christian, that do not involve resettling them into the U.S. Any and all effective policy advancements to that end ought not be reversed by an incoming administration clearly committed to reversing almost everything from the previous administration.
At the same time, as more and more people are forced to flee religious persecution around the world, the United States will need to admit more refugees. This is especially true of those fleeing persecution in China and Iran, where our ability to resolve crisis points on the ground is limited. This can be done without compromising our commitment to vet the situations and stories of those seeking refuge. Already, refugees are far more strictly vetted than others seeking to enter the United States.
Time will tell if the U.S. will open its doors. Whether we do or not will tell us what kind of nation we are.