President Joe Biden must immediately keep his promise to lift Donald Trump’s xenophobic refugee cap that cruelly restricts refugee admissions in the United States to the historically low level of 15,000 per year. In February, the president promised to raise the cap to 62,500 as a “down payment” on his commitment to resettle up to 125,000 refugees during fiscal year 2022.
But last week, he once again postponed the change. Each day that he delays signing an emergency determination is another day of signing off on Trump’s harmful policies and turning our back on refugees around the world, including those suffering in camps. Though President Biden has now promised to raise the cap by May 15, that’s simply not good enough.
I have seen firsthand what our caps can do to people who are suffering. Almost 30 years ago, I spent time working in Site 2, which was the largest refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime’s attempt to regain power in Cambodia. For many years, this was the largest refugee camp in all of Southeast Asia: In 1989, it held almost 150,000 people in just 3 small square miles, which increased to 200,000 people by 1991. As it was just 4 miles from the Cambodian border, Site 2 and its people continued to face direct and indirect bombing attacks. Just a few months before I arrived, 38 people had died and 42 were wounded during an attack just outside the camp.
Being there was my first exposure to refugee camps and formative in my strong views on why we must do more for refugees.
Each day Biden delays is another day of signing off on Trump’s harmful policies and turning our back on refugees around the world, including those suffering in camps.
What I witnessed in Site 2 was unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced. People were crowded into tents by the dozens. Aid organizations unloaded the food they had to the sound of running feet as people swarmed to get what they could. Like most refugee camps designed to be temporary shelters, very little beyond the basics were provided — even though the camps existed for years and years.
And many of those who were living in the camp had gone through pure hell to even be there: They had lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers along the way. There was a sadness in the eyes of many I met — a black hole of memories that couldn’t be forgotten no matter how hard they tried. And yet, there was also the resilience there, the same kind that would come to characterize so many of the immigrants and refugees I ended up working with many decades later.
It was impossible to be in a place like Site 2 and not think about how those in power were obligated to find new and better ways to address the horrific situations of and conditions facing refugees.
That fundamental belief shaped much of my career before coming to Congress, and it now shapes my work inside it.
While the cap that President Biden previously committed to is a relatively small number, it would be an enormous contribution to alleviating the pain and suffering of so many around the world.
The United States’ refugee resettlement program has long been a bipartisan operation, supported in idea and practice by a deeply committed field of nonprofit organizations, including many faith-based organizations, that do the hard work of resettling and integrating refugees into the fabric of American life. Many refugees are joining family members here in the United States; all are escaping persecution and violence. Many have assisted the United States military in their home countries during wars at great risk to their own safety. This includes wars that we started, and resettling these individuals in America is both a moral obligation and essential for our own national security.
And, though some have sought to confuse the issue of refugee resettlement with unaccompanied children at the southern border, it is important to be clear that the refugee resettlement program is entirely different.
Refugees are rigorously vetted before coming to the United States: The process involves both the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. It also includes multiple, stringent background checks which take, on average, 18 to 24 months to get through. And additional steps are required for some individuals.
I have seen firsthand what our caps on refugees can do to people who are suffering.
Then, unlike many other forms of migration and immigration, once people admitted as refugees arrive in the United States, refugee resettlement agencies actively help them establish themselves in their new communities.
Resettlement is managed through the Office of Refugee Resettlement in a unique public-private partnership with refugee resettlement agencies. These organizations, who were decimated by funding cuts during the Trump administration, have been actively building up staff and preparing to welcome more refugees since President Biden’s election in November because of the promises he made about lifting Trump’s refugee caps. They all expected to start resettling the more than 100,000 refugees waiting to come to the United States — including 35,000 refugees who have already been approved for resettlement.
These organizations committed to building that infrastructure to assist refugees, believing that President Biden would deliver on his promise to raise the cap.
That refugee resettlement cap, after all, is set by the president with the stroke of a pen. It becomes the ceiling — not the floor. While the 125,000 cap that President Biden previously committed to is a relatively small number compared to the 79.5 million displaced people worldwide, it would be an enormous contribution to alleviating the pain and suffering of so many around the world who are fleeing war, harm related to climate change, poverty and suffering.
And yet, on Friday, the president delayed yet another month.
At a 2017 congressional hearing, the National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president of government relations, Galen Carey, testified that the “U.S. refugee resettlement program is the crown jewel of American humanitarianism.” We must restore this distinction after Trump tried to erase it.
Let us not again back away from our core values; let us not waiver on our commitment to fulfilling our moral obligations. Let us once again be a beacon of hope to people — a country that proudly resettles refugees who have always contributed and will continue to contribute to America’s success while building our heart and soul each day.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Pramila Jayapal is a third-term Democrat representing Washington’s seventh district. She serves as the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a senior Democratic whip and on the committees on Budget, Education and Labor and Judiciary.