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U.S. Resettlement Groups Face Cutbacks As Refugee Numbers Drop


The number of refugees admitted into the U.S. is at the lowest now than it's been in decades. And that drop has meant major cutbacks for the handful of organizations that are authorized to resettle refugees, like the evangelical group World Relief.

Earlier this week, I talked with World Relief's Matthew Soerens about the impact of those cuts. And he told me about the closure of one of their offices in Jacksonville, Fla., that had resettled over 6,000 people. Now, even bigger cutbacks could be coming. POLITICO reported last week that some in President Trump's administration are pushing to take in no refugees at all, down from hundreds of thousands under President Reagan.

I asked Soerens what that would mean for his organization.

MATTHEW SOERENS: World Relief is really committed to our mission of empowering local churches to serve the vulnerable. We remain committed to that mission. But it would probably be at a reduced scale because with fewer refugees arriving, we wouldn't be able to maintain the current infrastructure we have throughout the United States. And of course, none of the people we'd be able to serve would be newly arrived refugees because those people would be shut out completely.

MARTIN: There are also questions right now about the asylum laws in general. Before the Trump administration, how difficult was it for any particular individual to claim asylum in this country and have that claim be accepted?

SOERENS: And so someone claiming asylum is basically professing to be a refugee. That is to say, they say they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin or social group. And it's never been easy because the burden of proof is on the applicant. And frankly, sometimes the people who say they're going to kill you don't send you a notarized letter saying that. And you may not have documentary evidence of the well-founded fear of persecution.

And the Trump administration has made it more and more difficult to request asylum to the point that they announced an interim final regulation - so it is in effect at the moment - that basically says if you pass through Mexico, you have to be able to show that you requested asylum and were denied in Mexico, or you will be ineligible for asylum in the United States.

MARTIN: Supporters of the administration would look at that and say, if a person from Central America is in a risky situation and the desire and need is to just extricate themselves from that situation, why shouldn't they apply for asylum in Mexico? Why does the United States bear that burden?

SOERENS: A very reasonable question. I think there's three big reasons. One would be that Mexico or Guatemala or other countries that someone might pass through really just don't have the infrastructure to process asylum claims. Their budgets for that in Mexico are tiny, and they're smaller than some of our World Relief offices in the United States - their governmental division that processes asylum.

Second, it's really not safe in Mexico or Guatemala, or at least not sufficiently safe in many parts of the country. That's part of why Guatemala is one of the country we see so many people fleeing from.

And then thirdly, most of the people, in my experience, who are seeking asylum from Central America have family or close friends in the United States. There's a reason that if they have to flee their homes - and that's not usually their first choice - this is a place they'd like to come because they have a place to land and someone who knows them who will help them to get on their feet.

MARTIN: Do you believe the United States has a moral obligation to accept people who, for whatever reason, find that they can no longer live in their home country? I mean, over the past couple of years in particular, you've heard Republicans say, time and again, America can't be the solution to every person's problems. How do you respond to that?

SOERENS: I think we have a moral obligation to do our part, which isn't to say we should take every persecuted person in the world. We can't do that. But we can do far more than we are doing at the moment.

And our laws - going back to language that was drafted in the days after World War II when, collectively, most of the world felt pretty awful about the way we turned Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi government away - we adopted laws that said if you reach the United States and you have a well-founded fear of persecution for one of these particular reasons under the law, we won't send you back. And I think we do have a - both a moral and a legal obligation to respect that.

And this country has a history of refugee resettlement that is a beautiful part of our heritage. It's - the Statue of Liberty - that sonnet from Emma Lazarus that says, give me your poor, your teeming masses yearning to breathe free. I'm not saying take the whole of the world's refugees. But last year, when we actually ended up taking fewer than 23,000 refugees, that was less than one-tenth of 1% of the more than 25 million refugees in the world.

MARTIN: Many Christian evangelicals have looked at the immigration situation, especially at the border right now with family separation, and seen horrible things and have privately lamented those things, but yet have stood by President Trump's policies and proclamations. Where do you stand on the religious component of this? Do you think evangelicals have done enough?

SOERENS: Yeah. I don't think evangelicals have done enough, and I say that as an evangelical. I would say a lot of evangelical leadership has been really straightforward in saying we should continue to welcome those people who are persecuted for whatever reason. A letter went up this week from leaders of some of the largest evangelical denominations in the country to President Trump, really imploring him not to cut the refugee ceiling further and, actually, to restore it back to a historically normal level.

But I do think, at the Pew level, if you will, this is a divisive issue. And I am really hoping and I'm personally praying that evangelicals will stop and say, this one's too far. We don't want to close that golden door on people fleeing persecution, including people who are persecuted for their Christian faith. I think it's maybe not gotten a lot of attention that Christian refugees from some of the countries where Christians face the worst persecution in the world, along with other religious minorities, are also really dramatically harmed by these policies.

MARTIN: As I understand it, a big part of your work is talking to fellow evangelicals about this - about immigration more broadly. Can you give us a sense of what you hear in those conversations?

SOERENS: Yeah. You know, I wouldn't do this work - I think I'd be completely burned out if it wasn't for the opportunities I have on a fairly regular basis to be in an evangelical church in various parts of the country on a Sunday morning, preaching and teaching on God's heart for immigrants.

And what's encouraging to me is when I speak in churches, the response is actually really positive. I think a lot of churches are afraid to even have that conversation. But when they do, I find that most people are really receptive if it's grounded not in a political agenda - we're not there to tell people to vote for Republicans or vote for Democrats - but in a biblical message that focuses on who we know God to be, as revealed in the Bible, and his particular concern for vulnerable refugees.

MARTIN: Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SOERENS: Thank you so much, Rachel. I'm so glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "CRACO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.