As president, Donald Trump slashed refugee admissions to the United States to a record low. Paradoxically, his administration also took major steps to highlight the persecution of religious minorities around the world, a key driver of global refugee movements.
President-elect Joe Biden promises to reverse Trump's refugee policy, raising the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 125,000. President Trump ordered last month that no more than 15,000 refugees be admitted to the United States in 2021, the lowest level in the history of the modern refugee program.
Speaking to the Jesuit Refugee Service after his election, Biden said his administration "will restore America's role in protecting the vulnerable and defending the rights of refugees everywhere."
"The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and oppressed, a leader in resettling refugees in our humanitarian response," Biden said. "I promise as president I'll reclaim that proud legacy for our country."
At the same time, human rights advocates are encouraging Biden to carry forward the Trump administration's promotion of international religious freedom. During Trump's term, the State Department hosted two international meetings focusing on the need to end the persecution of religious minorities.
Trump also issued an executive order mandating that support for global religious freedom become a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy and boosting funding for programs that, among other goals, "anticipate, prevent, and respond to attacks against individuals and groups on the basis of their religion."
Among those impressed by such efforts was Knox Thames, a special advisor for religious minorities under President Obama who stayed on at the State Department as part of the Trump team.
"I think, on promoting international religious freedom, it's safe to say they did more than any other administration has," Thames says.
Thames says he and others working on religious freedom issues at the State Department were nevertheless disappointed at how the initiative proceeded.
"On other things that were closely related, they came up short of where we hoped they would be," Thames says, citing Trump's ban on immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries and the lowered number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
"Here we are, working to defend the right of people to believe anything, or nothing, [or] to change faith," Thames says. "We're pushing governments to reform their laws. We're asking like-minded governments to elevate this issue. And then when you see thousands of people, who are being persecuted for their beliefs, needing to flee their homes, suddenly we're at the back of the line. We're no longer a leader. And people know we used to be."
Thames left the State Department in July of this year and is now working on a book about his experiences. His own disappointment with the Trump administration's attitude toward refugees, he says, was shared by State Department colleagues.
"When we'd ask questions about why the big [refugee] drawdown, they would always [say], 'Well, the White House...' There was no conversation you could have in the State Department to debate the merits of this policy," Thames says, "because it was coming directly from the White House. And that was just understood."
The refugee admission cutbacks came at a time when the need for refugee resettlement was high. According to the UN refugee agency's 2021 Global Needs Assessment, 1.4 million refugees are currently awaiting resettlement around the world. Many have fled religious persecution. Open Doors USA, an evangelical Christian organization, estimates that as many as 260 million Christians are living in countries where they experience high levels of persecution.
In his campaign speeches, Trump rarely mentioned his administration's promotion of the religious freedom cause, but he trumpeted his cutback on refugee admissions.
At a rally in Minnesota this fall, Trump predicted that refugees would be "a vital issue" in the presidential election.
"You know it perhaps better than almost anybody," he said, presumably referring to the large number of refugees from Somalia who have been settled in Minnesota. "Lots of luck," he said, sarcastically. "You're having a good time with the refugees."
A Biden presidency, Trump told the rally crowd, would bring a seven-fold increase in refugee admissions "from the most dangerous places in the world, including Yemen, Syria and Somalia. Congratulations, Minnesota. A 700% increase. Good luck, Minnesota. Enjoy yourselves, because if I'm not here...." He did not finish the sentence.
In his October executive order on refugee policy, Trump justified the record low refugee admissions ceiling by saying, "The threat to United States national security and public safety posed by the admission of refugees from high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control is significant and cannot be fully mitigated at this time."
Rebuilding resettlement infrastructure
For groups that have worked to assist with refugees in the United States, Trump's steep cuts have been disheartening, in part because other countries have followed the U.S. example, leading to reduced refugee resettlement around the world.
"Just in the past few years, there has been a decline of over 40% of countries that are admitting refugees," says Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization.
"It's because, if the United States is not taking its position as a world leader, other countries are effectively shutting their doors as well," Yang says. "When the United States leads, it allows other countries to also accept a higher number of refugees, but any time the United States has declined its numbers, we've seen a corollary decline in other countries," she says.
The sharp reduction in refugee admissions under President Trump has meant a drop in funding for refugee resettlement, so agencies devoted to that mission have seen an erosion of their capabilities. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, refugee assistance agencies have experienced a 38% decrease in their overall resettlement capacity. A revival of the refugee program under President-elect Biden would therefore present a challenge.
"Not only do we need to hire staff that have expertise in this area, we need to train them," says Yang. "We need to prepare our offices, even reopen offices in certain communities where refugees are going to be going. That takes a lot of time and investment."
President-elect Biden is promising to "dramatically increase" funding for refugee and asylee assistance. His administration may also want to follow through on the Trump administration's support for international religious freedom efforts as a key part of U.S. foreign policy. Those efforts have been praised by some of the same groups that have decried the cutbacks in refugee admissions under Trump.
"There's no doubt the [Trump] administration has had a historic commitment to promoting international religious freedom," Yang says.
Among those applauding the notion of giving religion-related issues more attention in foreign policy is Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement and a long-time advocate for working with faith groups around the world.
"The next steps would be, 'How do you equip diplomats and development experts and our military to engage religious actors," Seiple says. "We need to think about how we train all U.S. personnel with religious literacy as a function of a broader engagement strategy," he says. "Religion is not something you tack on, as another box. Religion is in all the boxes."
One indication of the Biden administration's plans in this area will be whether it would support a continuation of the international meetings on religious freedom that began under President Trump. State Department officials have hoped that other countries would continue those efforts independently of the United States. An "International Religious Freedom Alliance" was organized for that purpose.
After two meetings that brought foreign ministers to Washington, D.C., to discuss religious freedom issues, a third ministerial meeting was held this week in Poland.