Even if President Donald Trump loses his bid for re-election Tuesday, Nov. 3, refugee advocates say a reversal of his policies — such as the historically low cap on refugee admissions that drew sharp words from Oregon’s U.S. senators — will take time.
Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, did not hesitate to criticize Trump’s latest action during a media event Oct. 30 sponsored by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
The government announced a cap of 15,000 admissions for the federal budget year ending Sept. 30, 2021. It is lower than the 18,000 cap for 2020 — the actual number of admissions was around 12,000 — and the lowest under the Refugee Act of 1980. The cap was 85,000 in 2016 in the last full year of Barack Obama’s presidency, but fell to 54,000 in the first year of Trump’s presidency and has declined since.
Merkley, who is up for a third six-year term, has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s separation of children from families seeking asylum. A recent report disclosed that despite a judge’s order to reunite the families, more than 500 children were still separated from their parents. Most are from Mexico or Central America.
Merkley was the first member of Congress to visit border camps, starting in 2018, and call attention to the issue. He subsequently wrote a book, “America Is Better Than This: Trump’s War on Migrant Families.”
“Perhaps there is no more powerful symbol of America than Lady Liberty standing in New York harbor, holding her torch up and declaring, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'” Merkley said as he raised his right arm and quoted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the 134-year-old statue.
“But during the last four years, President Trump has taken out the welcome mat and replaced it with a ‘no vacancy’ sign … This administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty’s torch. It is our responsibility to relight it and welcome far more refugees from around the world who are fleeing hunger, religious oppression and war.”
Merkley said the more generous U.S. refugee policies prior to Trump didn’t start recently. He quoted writings by Thomas Paine and George Washington, among the founders of the American republic almost 250 years ago.
Merkley said even if only one refugee were admitted for every 10,000 Americans, the total would still be less than 40,000 annually.
Wyden said the 15,000 ceiling set by Trump “wouldn’t even fill the Moda Center,” the Portland arena with a capacity of just under 20,000.
Wyden praised Merkley, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for calling attention to the refugees’ plight.
“He is the Senate’s go-to person, again and again, for human rights,” Wyden said.
Wyden often refers to the story of his own parents, both of whom fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, although other family members died in the Holocaust, the Nazi mass extermination of 6 million Jews and others during World War II. His father, Peter, later joined the U.S. Army and wrote anti-Nazi communications as the Allied armies fought in Western Europe.
“My parents were forever grateful that America was a safe haven from the Holocaust,” he said. “One of the things they were proudest of was (Peter Wyden) being able to serve in our military so that we could fight the Nazis. Like so many refugees before, my parents continually said that the United States is always about freedom.
“So I stand here today, proudly as their son, firmly devoted to preserving this lifeline for refugees to find safety in America and build on the incredible contributions that refugees have made to our country.”
System ‘eroding fast’
But Djimet (pronounced “Jimmy)” Dogo, Africa House coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, said it will take time to repair the political damage resulting from Trump’s policies even if Democrat Joe Biden wins the presidency. Dogo said on a per-capita basis, some small countries have accepted larger shares of refugees during the past four years than a large and wealthy country like the United States.
“I have seen firsthand how this administration has negatively impacted refugees,” Dogo said. “We have a global system to make sure the world will never again turn its back on people fleeing persecution. But under this current administration, that system is eroding fast.”
IRCO executive director Lee Cha, himself a refugee from Laos, said Oregon has received no significant refugees for settlement since the 589 people recorded in federal budget year 2018. According to Oregon Department of Human Services statistics, the state has recorded a total of 67,743 refugees from 1975 to 2018. The peak was in 1980, when there were 6,213; the two previous lows were in 1978 and 1979, before congressional passage of the Refugee Act.
“I know there are going to be some challenges,” he said, even if Biden is elected president. Biden has vowed that if he is elected, the federal government will reunite the 500-plus children with their parents.
Howard Kenyon, a vice president of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, said Trump’s cap of 15,000 will be in effect through most of 2021.
“My assumption is that with any change of administration, it will take about a year before those numbers will change for the following year,” he said.
“The bigger task we have across the nation is that refugee resettlement agencies have to be rebuilt. In many cases they have been closed because of the lack of activities during the past four years.”
Kenyon said the three Oregon nonprofit agencies tasked with helping refugees — his own, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Community Services Northwest — have been able to keep their doors open despite spending cuts. But he said state funding through the Legislature ends with the current budget cycle at the end of June 2021.
Gov. Kate Brown also has pushed back against Trump’s actions, declaring that Oregon is open to refugees.
Matthew Westerbeck, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities, said the three nonprofit agencies and Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization cooperate and do not duplicate services. In addition to resettlement and helping refugees adjust to a new country, he said, the agencies also help with employment, housing and other matters for six to 12 months.
“All of us have been impacted the past four years as a result of those (Trump) policies,” Westerbeck said. “That is why we support the efforts of Senators Merkley and Wyden so that we can rebuild — I hope starting next week.”