Trump Hurting Religious Freedom Worldwide With Refugee Cuts, Evangelical Leaders Say

Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders wait to cross into Jordan in this undated photo.
Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders wait to cross into Jordan in this undated photo. | (Photo: Reuters)

Evangelical leaders are continuing to speak out against the Trump administration's cuts to United States refugee resettlement, arguing that the historically low levels of refugees being resettled harms international religious freedom.

As President Donald Trump and his administration continue to deliberate on what to set the U.S. refugee resettlement cap at for fiscal year 2019, before it begins on Oct. 1, local evangelical pastors are joining national evangelical leaders in calling on the Trump administration to do its part to better serve a small minority of the nearly 70 million refugees around the world who don't have a home.

On a conference call Wednesday, a handful of pastors and refugee resettlement advocates voiced their concern with the fact that the U.S. is on pace to resettle less than 22,000 refugees in fiscal year 2018. This means that the U.S. is on pace to resettle the fewest number of refugees in one fiscal year since the Refugee Act passed in 1980.

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After setting the cap for fiscal year 2018 at 45,000, it's been rumored that Trump is considering setting the refugee cap at around 25,000 for fiscal year 2019. However, one evangelical lobbyist told reporters on the call that he has heard figures as low as a 5,000-refugee cap being floated around.

"We are hearing several different numbers. The 25,000 that [was] referenced is what I call a trial balloon that the administration seemed to float about a month ago," Nathan Bult, director of government affairs for Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit that has historically helped resettle Congolese Christians in Michigan and has helped resettle Rohingya refugees in the last three years, said.

"I think there are competing factions in Congress as well as the administration, we have heard numbers as low as 5,000 and we have talked to members of Congress who want to see numbers as high as 100,000 like they were just two years," Bult continued. "Forty-five thousand, the [refugee cap] for this year is already the lowest presidential determination in history. [And] 25,000 would send it even lower."

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Bult said the U.S. resettled just over 27,000 in the following fiscal year. This year, he says, the U.S. is on pace for between 21,000 to 22,000 refugees despite the cap set at 45,000.

"We are already at unprecedented low levels of refugees being resettled and we are deeply concerned that it is only going to get lower," he warned.

Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, praised the Trump administration for vowing to promote and protect religious freedom across the globe and for convening the first-ever State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July. However, Carey stressed that the administration must follow up on the ministerial by strengthening a weakened refugee resettlement program.

"Many refugees are believers who have been persecuted for their faith, because they are Christians or belong to another faith that is disfavored, where conditions do not permit them to return to their homes," he said. "We have the opportunity provide a small percentage of the most vulnerable refugees the chance to rebuild their lives in a country where they can live and worship in freedom and peace."

"We commend President Trump, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo and Ambassador [for International Religious Freedom Sam] Brownback for convening in an important gathering of leaders from over 80 countries to focus on improving religious freedom around the world," Carey added. "The NAE participated and supported this event. One way the administration can build on the success of this event is to strengthen the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program to ensure that it responds to the needs of persecuted religious minorities."

Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy for NAE's humanitarian arm World Relief, one of nine organizations authorized to resettle refugees in the U.S., warned of the harm to international religious freedom that could come from resettling fewer refugees in the U.S.

"The drastic decline in refugee resettlement over the past couple years has meant that far fewer persecuted people, including those persecuted for their Christian faith, have been able to find safety and religious freedom in the U.S," she said in a statement. "A further cut to the ceiling for refugee resettlement would harm even more people persecuted for their faith. We're praying that President Trump will set the ceiling back at 75,000, and World Relief and our many partner churches, along with other resettlement organizations, stand ready to welcome them."

In August, evangelical leaders with the Evangelical Immigration Table, including Russell Moore and Samuel Rodriguez, signed onto a letter sent to Pompeo, Brownback and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that called for the refugee cap to be set at 75,000.

This week, Reuters cited 20 current and former U.S. officials to report that the Trump administration had abandoned refugee policies established over decades that were embraced by both Republican and Democrat administrations and have extended stricter vetting to refugees from 11 countries around the world.

Reuters also notes that U.S. government has reportedly reduced the number of officials conducting refugee interviews by about two-thirds and has reassigned about 100 of 155 interviewers who handle refugee screenings to to handle asylum screenings for immigrants who already live in the U.S.

Additionally, the sources say, the Trump administration has rejected internal findings that "refugees could be admitted safely and with little expense."

The administration's actions on refugee resettlement means that thousands of refugees have been waiting in limbo for their applications to be processed through the U.S. government's 18-month screening process

Eric Costanzo, a pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church in Oklahoma, told reporters on the conference call that his church has spent the last two years developing an international refugee ministry that provides english classes and even runs a program to teach immigrant women how to sew so they can find jobs.

He added that there is a large community of Burmese refugees in Tulsa that is comprised of many evangelical Christians who are waiting for their family members to be processed through the U.S. refugee resettlement system as genocidal violence and war crimes have been committed by the Myanmar military that have forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes in the last couple years.

"Engaging with these people, you begin to learn about their stories and learn about the importance of family reunification," Costanzo said. "Many of our refugees here in Tulsa are still waiting for their immediate family members to go through a process they already began that has now been almost ground to a halt. More stipulations or unexpected delays have been added and for the most part, for the last year-and-a-half plus, a lot of these families have not had any traction gained."

Patrick Vaughn, the assistant pastor at Christ Church East Bay in Oakland, California, explained that there are a group of women in his church that also minister to and befriend refugees as partners with International Rescue Committee.

"I think the church has abundant resources of love and radical hospitality because it is radical love and radical hospitality that God extends to us in Jesus," Vaughn stated. "Romans says that Jesus loves us even when we were God's enemy. That is radical love. That is radical love and radical neighboring that Jesus demonstrates to us. My question for the evangelical church as an evangelical pastor is when you experience weclome like that from the God of the universe, how can you not welcome refugees?"

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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