Yesterday we welcomed 13 new students for the fall session of our Refugee and Immigrant Sewing Enterprise. They came ready to sew, but also were eager to share with us about their lives, meet one another, and learn a skill that will allow them to contribute to their community and their families. They were all smiles and so were we.
During the evening session, in the middle of an explanation about seam gauges, a news alert came across my phone so I walked over to silence and put my phone away. A number caught my eye.
And the word Refugees.
I knew exactly what the news alert was about, but I set my phone aside until class was over. After we said our goodbyes to the ladies with hugs and words of excitement about next week’s lesson, I looked at the details of the news alert. The president had set the number of how many refugees can be resettled in the United States next year.
It’s a cut to an already drastically scaled back program for people who seek to enter our country because they are fleeing violence and persecution. (Last year’s pathetically low cap was 45,000.) And this comes at a time when the numbers of forcibly displaced people around the world have reached a post-World War II record: 68.5 billion. In his announcement about the cap, Secretary of State Pompeo called the reduction a response to a “daunting operational reality”, referring to a backlog of asylum seekers. He overstated the numbers and linked two types of immigrants who are processed differently in order to create a misleading justification for the low cap. But this is only one example of how the administration is controlling the narrative with misleading facts and skewed numbers. Their argument: “We need to prioritize hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived at the U.S. border who are claiming a credible fear of returning home, rather than refugees overseas who have already officially qualified for protection and resettlement in another country.” Which is interesting and up for debate after the administration failed to protect unaccompanied minors at the border, separated families, and sent thousands of people from our border back to places where their lives are in danger. Instead of effectively administering the two separate programs (asylum seekers and refugees), the narrative seems to pit the two programs against one another in order to justify slowly gutting the refugee resettlement program. Just to be clear, this was a goal from this president’s first days in office. The travel ban was imposed a week after he was sworn in, halting the program and limiting the number of refugees that could be resettled from 110,000 to 50,000.
As for the 30,000 number, that’s a cap. Remember the 45,000 number? Only 20, 918 have been admitted for this year and it’s September 18th. So expect a number more like 15,000 for next year. If that.
The reasons, justifications, and arguments for lowering the cap are shrouded in concern for the safety of our own country and a plausible-sounding regard for responsible vetting procedures. Don’t be fooled. The foreshadowing of everything surrounding the crisis at the border and the dismantling of the refugee resettlement program was clearly stated in campaign speeches before this president was elected and in the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees that accompanied his campaign. Current events have little to do with these decisions.
The irony of this announcement on a day when we were welcoming new women into our Refugee Sewing Enterprise is not lost on me. I’ve been silent on this, deciding that my path of resistance against the questionable policies of this administration will be to do good work with those in the refugee community. I teach a citizenship class each week to 20 refugees and immigrants from all over the world who are eager to call themselves citizens of the United States. It gives me hope and makes me feel closer to the kingdom of God to be surrounded by the beautiful mix of language, culture and religions. The students love this country, are proud to be here, and they work hard to contribute to our local community. I’m deeply distressed that the direction we are moving sends a message to the world that we are closing our borders to keep out those are not us. It is contrary to the heart of a loving God who welcomes everyone. There is no us and them. There is only us.
So here is my voice, pitched as loud as possible but in the nicest way I know how to say it: If we accept this administration’s narrative of fear, racism and nationalism, we are complicit in what will be viewed as a historic turning away of those who are in serious need of safe refuge. If that sounds too simplistic, then please put me over with the people who really do believe the message of Jesus: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simply stated, if not simple to live out.
Tomorrow night in our weekly citizenship class, I’m going to welcome each student who walks through the door. And on Thursday and Friday, I’m going to welcome the sewing students again. I do this each week, but now I’m going to do it with more intentionality. More passion. More determination. And more resistance. If you want to join voices, let’s raise them together on behalf of all of us.