“The refugee (executive order) is great, recognizes that the program needs … a total overhaul after 4 years of abuse and decades of neglect and opacity,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), said in an email to Religion News Service.
“This really does build back better resettlement!” Hetfield added, in a reference to one of Biden’s campaign slogans.
The new fiscal year doesn’t begin until October, but a statement from the White House said Biden will also propose raising the so-called refugee ceiling for this fiscal year, after consulting with Congress.
While HIAS and other faith-based organizations involved in refugee resettlement are feeling hopeful, the twin realities of a global pandemic and the massive amount of work required to rebuild the gutted U.S. resettlement apparatus have many admitting it’s unlikely the U.S. will admit 125,000 refugees anytime soon.
“It’s a change in direction. We welcome it. We are very pleased to see it as a church,” Demetrio Alvero, director of operations for Episcopal Migration Ministries, said last week in anticipation of Biden’s announcement, which fulfills a campaign pledge.
But Alvero doesn’t expect the actual numbers of refugees physically resettled in the country to change much this year. Instead, he described the numbers Biden has discussed as “an aspirational goal and a signal to all the agencies — the resettlement agencies, as well as the governmental ones — we have a policy shift.”
Faith-based organizations have long done the work of welcoming refugees as part of a public-private partnership with the U.S. government. Six of the nine agencies contracted to resettle refugees in the country are faith-based.
They include Episcopal Migration Ministries, HIAS, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief.
The president generally sets the refugee ceiling ahead of the beginning of the fiscal year in October, but there’s precedent for changing it at other times, said Jenny Yang, vice president of policy and advocacy on refugee resettlement at World Relief. Trump lowered the number from 110,000 to 50,000 his first week in office. Former President Bill Clinton also adjusted it, to admit additional refugees from Kosovo, during his presidency.
And setting that number at 125,000 wouldn’t be unheard of either: There have been years when it topped 125,000, and it has been as high as 231,700, Yang said.