The administration changed the criteria for refugees to qualify for resettlement in the U.S., shutting out many people the faith-based organizations traditionally helped. And with federal funding following the refugees they work with, and fewer refugees allowed into the country, all six refugee resettlement agencies were forced to lay off staff and close offices or programs across the country. Many staff members — some of whom came into the country as refugees themselves — lost their jobs.
“You’re not just changing policy for a couple of years; you’re dismantling decades of work and relationships that will be nearly impossible to rebuild,” Jen Smyers, the former director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, told RNS in 2019.
Indeed, rebuilding the U.S. apparatus decimated by Trump — which agency leaders said resulted in a third of refugee settlement sites closing their programs — will take some time.
The drastic changes over the past four years caught refugee resettlement agencies by surprise when the program historically has enjoyed bipartisan support, Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization at World Relief, said on a recent call with reporters.
Moving forward, Soerens said, “we won’t make the mistake of just rebuilding everywhere in the country and presuming that the numbers will be stable at the level that we’re projecting for this year indefinitely — we can’t do that.”
Meredith Owen, policy and advocacy director for Church World Service’s refugee program, said the rebuilding process includes everything from identifying new resettlement sites to hiring and training new staff to leasing new buildings.
Even choosing a new location can be complicated: Agencies look for places where there are jobs, affordable housing and faith communities willing to partner with them to support their new neighbors. This also typically requires extensive consultation with local community leaders, such as school administrators.
And there are lingering political concerns. Several agency leaders told RNS they worry about anti-refugee sentiment that spiked during the Trump era and helped spur his administration’s refugee reductions.
“Anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-refugee sentiment, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, which goes back to Jewish refugees in this country — I think they’re often linked,” said Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s office of Migration and Refugee Service.
“We have to be mindful of that. We have to make sure … we recognize the communities that we’re resettling refugees into should be at the same time, in these coming years, working on some of these issues — which are all about kindness to our neighbor, love for our neighbor and, in this case, their new neighbors.”
One thing the past four years has revealed is the need to facilitate important conversations about who refugees are, why the U.S. welcomes them and how that benefits both refugees and their new neighbors, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“There is a real opportunity for us to fight fiction with fact,” she said.