Forty years after passage of Refugee Act, our country’s refugee program is in tatters


March 2, 2020

Seven-year-old Biar Atem was in a field helping tend his father’s cattle when the explosions began. The second civil war had come to his South Sudan village. Two million people would die; millions more would be displaced, including Atem, who became part of the roughly 30,000 “Lost Boys of South Sudan,” who walked barefoot for 1,000 miles to reach refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

“Only one in three boys survived the journey,” Atem recounts. “Some died of starvation; others, of malaria; still others by lion and other animal attacks. And, of course, many died from gunfire. At one time, Ethiopian soldiers chased us out of their country, forcing us to swim across the Gilo River, which was infested with crocodiles. Many kids didn’t make it out of the water. They were either eaten or shot.”

After living in camps for well over a decade, Atem and nearly 4,000 “Lost Boys” were allowed to settle in the U.S. in 2001. The law that allowed them to come here is known as the Refugee Act of 1980. On Tuesday of this week, this legislation marks its 40th birthday (Congress passed the Act on March 3, 1980; President Carter signed it into law weeks later).

Normally, a 40th anniversary would be a cause for celebration. Not today. The nation’s refugee program lays in tatters, the victim of a racist and xenophobic White House that has slammed the door on those in need.

Atem offered his story last week to members of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, which spent an afternoon examining the status of America’s refugee program.

Atem is a Las Vegas resident who worked his way up from casino janitor, obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees and is now a casino executive who owns and manages a real estate company on the side. His story is painfully ironic. Just after his arrival in the U.S., 9-11 happened and the number of Sudanese refugees allowed to come here dropped sharply. There was fear then, as now, that terrorists might be hiding among refugee populations – after all, Osama Bin Laden spent five years living in South Sudan, and it was his Al-Qaeda that made Atem a refugee in the first place when the group attacked his Christian village.

More than anything, Atem wanted to visit Kenya, where his mother was living in a refugee camp, and bring her to the U.S. But she died of malaria after having been denied to visa by the U.S. to attend Atem’s wedding.

“Her life and death in the camp was, ultimately, a result of the tragic and fearful times we live in,” Atem relates. “Therefore it is not an exaggeration to say that I sit here today because my family and the community of ‘Lost Boys’ are, in various ways, victims of the same terrorism that struck the United States on September 11th.”

Had Atem’s harrowing escape occurred more recently, it is highly unlikely that he would have gained admission to the U.S. Since the Refugee Act of 1980 was enacted, various presidential administrations, acting under congressional oversight, have established an average ceiling of 95,000 refugees a year; this “ceiling” is the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S., although the exact number often falls just short of this.

When President Trump took office, he inherited from his predecessor a ceiling of 110,000 refugees for FY 2017; the Trump Administration immediately lowered this figure to 50,000. In FY 2018, the ceiling was cut to 45,000, but only 23,000 refugees were actually admitted. In FY 2019, the ceiling was further lowered to 30,000, and for the current fiscal year, that number was lowered further still, to 18,000 – an 80 percent cut from the historic average ceiling of 95,000.

Barbara Strack was a civil servant who led the Refugee Affairs Division under three Presidents – Bush, Obama, and Trump. In remarks delivered to subcommittee members last week, she said the U.S. is likely not to come close to reaching this year’s already shockingly low ceiling.

“The Administration has offered a series of excuses for the low ceiling on refugee admissions, rather than plainly stating that its preferred policy is fewer refugees finding freedom and opportunity in the United States,” she said.

An egregious example of the Trump Administration’s nonfeasance: although it has set a ceiling of allowing 4,000 Iraqi refugees into the U.S. this fiscal year, and despite the fact that we are five months into the fiscal year, only 53 Iraqi refugees have been allowed into the country.

“These Iraqi applicants are individuals who have worked closely with the U.S. military, diplomats, journalists, and aid workers, and this contraction of refugee resettlement sends a message to our allies and potential future allies that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promises,” she said.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia is a freshman Democrat and the first Latina to represent her urban-suburban Houston congressional district. She is proud that Houston is one of the nation’s leading cities when it comes to welcoming and settling refugees. She notes that 90 percent of refugees reach self-sufficiency in only six months, a truly impressive feat given all the barriers that come with living in a new country.

Garcia, a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, said in Houston, many nonprofits have been working to welcome refugees for more than four decades, when refugees began arriving from Vietnam and Cambodia.

“Now, because of efforts to drastically limit the refugee program, we risk losing these agencies, systems that simply cannot start up again once a new administration restores the previous resettlement numbers,” she said.

Besides, she said, it is the right thing to do.

“The world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis in history with an estimated 25.9 million refugees worldwide, and we cannot abandon our long-standing tradition of leadership in welcoming them,” she said. “It is good for our economy and our national security, but most importantly, it is fundamental to our values as a nation. After all, it is about people and doing what’s right.”

And Strack, the former Chief of the Refugees Division under two Republican and one Democratic Presidents, said congressional oversight is desperately needed – right now.

“The need for congressional oversight is particularly stark because the Administration is not just temporarily cutting refugee numbers during its tenure in office,” Strack explained. “The changes made by this Administration will have long-lasting ramifications, dismantling a program that Congress has supported and invested in over decades. These investments have created an infrastructure of public/private partnerships including state and local governments, congregations of faith, nonprofits, volunteers, employers, and community members across the United States.”

And these investments have created opportunities for people like Atem, who both serves on the national board of directors for a refugee advocacy organization, and started his own nonprofit in Las Vegas to help Sudanese refugees.

“Like other refugees, I’ve come a long way since the crocodiles of the Gilo River, all thanks to the opportunities available in the United States,” he said. “Other refugees are eager for those opportunities as well. If you welcome them, they will further empower this amazing country.”