Faith and grassroots organizations are mobilizing against the lockdown at the U.S.-Mexico border – which is aimed at immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. They’re working as fast as possible in the face of what they say is a moral catastrophe.
SAN DIEGO – One day in early December, close to three dozen interfaith leaders from around the country were arrested at the Imperial Beach-Tijuana boundary between the United States and Mexico. As they were frog-marched away by U.S. Border Patrol agents in riot gear, hundreds of protesters on the safe side of the “No Trespass” signs sang the song “We Are Not Afraid” and repeated, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.”
The protest was held on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Several hundred people, organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which has a San Diego office working on border issues, marched down the wind-swept beach to the border fence to take a stand against the increasingly restrictive immigration policies embraced by the Trump administration.
About 100 of the protesters, mainly faith leaders from around the U.S., had taken nonviolence training in preparation for getting themselves arrested as “prophetic witnesses.” The phrase, used often among progressive religious activists as they contemplate civil disobedience to protest social injustices, implies a sort of moral-cum-religious mandate to chronicle and shine a light on the maltreatment of the weak. In this case, the activists were protesting the treatment of asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border, as well as the huge reductions in the numbers of refugees being admitted annually.
It was the kickoff to “Love Knows No Borders,” a week of actions across the country, highlighting the moral consequences of locking out the world’s most vulnerable people.
“We wanted to conduct a ceremony at the border fence,” said Pedro Rios, director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program at the AFSC’s San Diego office. “The positions the Trump administration has been taking seem to be immoral. Who best to confront that immorality but faith leaders? It is a movement of people willing to take a much more bold step in how they present demands regarding border policy, respect of the right to migrate and to petition for asylum.”
Increasingly, the lockdown against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees is seen by AFSC and other organizations not just as a policy crisis, but as a moral catastrophe – a stress test to America’s most fundamental values and its standing in a chaotic world. Increasingly, agencies tasked with resettling refugees are realizing that, in the current political climate, there is no such thing as business as usual. The changes are happening too fast and having too deep an impact.
The Obama administration admitted over 100,000 refugees in 2016, attempting to deal with the human fallout from wars in Syria, Yemen and other hot spots.
In 2017, the Trump administration began slashing refugee admissions. The presidential determination upon which refugee policy is based reduced the cap to 45,000 in the fiscal year straddling the end of 2017 and first 10 months of 2018; and because officials slowed down the vetting process, only about 22,000 were actually allowed in. The numbers were recently reduced to a 30,000 cap for the current fiscal year, and resettlement agencies fear only about 15,000 refugees will actually be admitted. Stephen Miller, the hardline architect of many of Trump’s immigration policies, has proposed even more drastic curtailments.
The travel ban against residents from Iran, Syria, Yemen and Somalia made a bad situation worse: Virtually no refugees are being admitted from Syria and Yemen, two countries torn apart by some of the most devastating conflicts on earth. And a statistical analysis of refugee admissions, conducted by an organization that works on immigration issues and reviewed by Equal Voice News, the online storytelling platform of Marguerite Casey Foundation, showed that almost no Arabic-speaking refugees are being granted entry. In October 2018, 1,059 of the 1,834 refugee admissions were from Africa; in November, it was 1,251 out of 2,146. From the “Near East/South Asia” region, an area that includes Syria and Yemen, just 180 people were admitted in those two months.
Refugee resettlement agencies and organizations, such as AFSC, which help coordinate community responses to immigration policy and work with newly admitted immigrant families on the ground, have been trying to work out how to respond to this assault. AFSC has concluded that civil disobedience has to be a part of the effort. Others are simply trying to work out how to survive the storm and keep their offices open and employees paid.
There are nine refugee-resettlement agencies funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration – among them, World Relief and the International Rescue Committee. In normal years, a presidential determination on the number of refugees to be admitted the following fiscal year would be released in spring or early summer. The State Department would then give the agencies up to six weeks to put together their estimates for needed funding and the numbers of refugees they would resettle in each geographic region of the country. By early fall, the agencies typically had a good sense of where things stood financially for the following fiscal year.
In 2018, Trump did not meet the summer deadline for his presidential determination. Instead, the State Department told the agencies, essentially, to wing it and assume the refugee cap would be the same in 2019 as it was in 2018: 45,000. The agencies followed this advice.
In October 2018, a week before the end of the fiscal year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the cap would be lowered to 30,000.
The formal presidential determination confirming this reduced number was released a couple weeks later – after the end of the fiscal year. Having failed to give the resettlement agencies the needed head’s up, instead The Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration extended the fiscal year by 90 days, giving the resettlement agencies funding until Dec. 31.
At the end of November, agencies were told to quickly resubmit their applications for next year’s funding. The expectation was that they would have to trim the number of offices they operated nationwide since so few refugees are now being allowed in.
From 1980 to 2017, the U.S. admitted more than 3 million refugees, and granted asylum to an additional 683,186 people. It was, arguably, one of the greatest humanitarian achievements in the country’s history. Now, the well of generosity has run dry. Agencies submitted their applications but were left hanging amid a partial government shutdown that started at the end of 2018 and is continuing into early 2019.
As of December, many of the resettlement agencies had received assurances they would remain funded, but others were still in limbo, having received no word on their standing for 2019.
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. In January, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “Portraits of Muslim Families Show the Real America.” The United Nations cited his 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” in its 2018 report about extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
2019 © Marguerite Casey Foundation