How Evangelicals Pushed Back on Biden’s Refugee Reversal

Evangelical advocates played a crucial role in holding President Joe Biden accountable to a promise to raise the limits for refugees coming to America. Publicly and privately, they pushed back on the administration’s explanation for continuing Trump-era limits for another six months, framed the change as a betrayal of a promise, and reiterated the moral argument for accepting refugees.

Within a few hours of a presidential memo on April 16 telling the State Department to keep the number of refugee admissions at 15,000 instead of raising it to the promised 62,500, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated there had been “some confusion,” and the administration started to reverse course. That evening, a deputy national security advisor held an emergency conference call with advocacy groups, including World Relief, to offer assurances that the administration would welcome more refugees with haste.

“It was one of the busiest workdays I’ve ever had,” Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, wrote on Facebook. “At the end of the day, the President heard the voice of the people and changed course, stating that he is planning to raise the #refugee ceiling next month. Thanks for raising your voice. Keep it up!”

Evangelical groups helped set up the moral conflict just after noon on April 16, when the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of nine prominent evangelical organizations, released a statement urging Biden to raise the ceiling on refugee resettlement immediately. Expressing “dismay and disappointment,” the letter pointed out the US was on track to accept the fewest refugees in the history of the resettlement program, which began in 1980.

The statement included quotes from the leaders of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Bethany Christian Services, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition urging action.

“As we approach the end of the first 100 days of the new administration, policies that harm the most vulnerable remain in place. This delay is a travesty,” wrote Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany. “Christian churches and nonprofits that resettle refugees and reunify families are ready to answer this biblical call, but we can’t live out our mission until the administration follows through on their commitment.”

Minutes after the statement was released, news broke that Biden had sent the State Department instructions to keep the cap at the all-time low of 15,000.

In their initial explanation, White House spokespeople pointed to various limiting factors. They said, for example, that more time was needed to rebuild the resettlement infrastructure that had been gutted by the Trump Administration’s decisions and that the Office of Refugee Resettlement was overburdened by migrants claiming asylum at the US-Mexico border.

While such claims seem plausible to the general public, who are mostly unaware of how the refugee program works, evangelical advocates and others who have worked on resettlement scrambled to explain these were not valid reasons to keep the cap on refugees.

“I talked to nearly every major national news outlet,” Yang said, “sharing stories, correcting data, responding to the White House’s statements.”

According to Yang and others, the processes for asylum seekers at the border and refugee resettlement are completely separate, with different staff and funding. Accepting more refugees could also alleviate stress at the border. Resettlement agencies are ready to work and raising the refugee ceiling is the first step in rebuilding the infrastructure necessary to welcome people in need to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Within a few hours, evangelical organizations including World Relief, the ERLC, and the NAE were invited to join other religious advocacy groups and refugee agencies in a last-minute virtual press call to hear directly from White House officials.

The call was arranged by the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a Bush-era initiative revived by Biden, giving faith communities access to decision makers across federal agencies in the executive branch of the government. Other religious groups involved in the discussion included Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Jewish-American non-profit HIAS, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On the call, officials backtracked, blamed confusion, and announced a vague but promising update about a higher ceiling that would be set soon, perhaps in May. A follow-up meeting was arranged with representatives from the nine refugee resettlement agencies, including World Relief.

“[We] will always stand with refugees, regardless of who is president, whether he keeps his promises, or how the US government decides to respond,” said Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief. “And we’ll always seek to convene a Christian conscience on behalf of the marginalized.”

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Source: Christianity Today