BY JOSH UTTER | December 8, 2020
“I realize that some people are hesitant and fearful with regard to migrants. I consider this part of our natural instinct of self-defense. Yet it is also true that an individual and a people are only fruitful and productive if they are able to develop a creative openness to others.”
Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti
At JRS/USA’s 40th anniversary event in November, President-elect Joe Biden made a significant promise regarding refugee admissions: “The Biden-Harris administration will restore our historic role in protecting the vulnerable and protecting the rights of refugees everywhere and raising our annual refugee admission target to 125,000.”
This announcement is a breath of fresh air after the past four years of decreased refugee admissions to the U.S. In October, the Trump-Pence administration set the admissions cap at 15,000 for Fiscal Year 2021, the lowest number since the launch of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in 1980. Meanwhile, the U.S. failed to reach the admissions cap of 18,000 for Fiscal Year 2020, with only 11,814 refugees welcomed as refugee resettlement came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although the need for resettlement has not gone away. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that over 1.4 refugees will be in need of resettlement in 2021, so it is of utmost importance that the Biden-Harris administration remains committed to this promise and reopens the country to refugees.
Recent events increase the pressure on the incoming administration to uphold these promises to refugees and asylum seekers. Central America continues to recover from the destruction of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, with over 5 million people affected and at least 1.5 million of them children. Their homes covered in mud and communities washed away, the list of reasons to migrate continues to grow for Central Americans. The situation in Central America may mark the beginning of future exoduses due to the changing climate, as UNHCR estimates that climate-related disasters could increase the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance to 200 million each year by 2050.
Globally, 79.5 million people are currently displaced. Forced to flee due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order,” these individuals and families have sought refuge within their own country’s borders or beyond. Many seek asylum at the borders of neighboring countries, while some make the harrowing journey across sea and land to reach the U.S. border.
The U.S. border is currently an unwelcoming place, sealed off to asylum seekers due to policies such as the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), family separation, and the closure of the border in response to COVID-19. For a country that sees itself committed to the protection of human rights, these policies demonstrate a deliberate denial of the right of asylum and put asylum seekers at risk of returning to dangerous and life-threatening situations.
While the American public wishes away the tragedies of 2020, it cannot be expected that 2021 will be any easier as the United States continues to recover from the COVD-19 pandemic. The federal, state, and local governments must not forget the refugees and immigrants (particularly DACA recipients and TPS holders) who have contributed to our recovery efforts and work essential jobs. Often, it falls into the hands of migrants themselves to share what they have with the immigrant community around them. Xiomy De La Cruz, a Peruvian refugee in Hartford, CT, started a food pantry that serves families facing food insecurity in her neighborhood, many of whom are undocumented.
The Biden-Harris administration will face the challenge of reversing these restrictive immigration policies and restoring the asylum and refugee resettlement process. I pray they heed the words of Pope Francis and encourage our nation to “develop a creative openness to others.” Yet we cannot depend on them alone. We must hold our government accountable and reaffirm our commitment to advocating in solidarity with the immigrant and refugee community.
Josh Utter is originally from Madison, WI, and a graduate of Loras College in Dubuque, IA. Based in Washington, D.C., Josh is the outreach and advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. He also currently serves as a resident minister on Georgetown University’s campus. Prior to his work in work in D.C., Josh was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone and spent time in discernment with the Midwest Jesuits.