Joe Biden’s presidential victory came as a relief to many in Utah’s refugee community, particularly to those who help resettle these families.
This new president supported their work and promised to boost the number of vulnerable people from war-ravaged countries that are welcome into our communities.
It was time to ramp up.
Each state has resettlement agencies. In Utah, they are the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. These groups began bracing for a rush of families by furnishing apartments, working with schools and potential employers, and preparing a network to help these new Utahns get established.
Flights were booked. Eager family members awaited reuniting with loved ones they have not embraced in years.
And then … nothing.
Biden said he’d boost the number of refugees allowed this year from 15,000 (the tally then-President Donald Trump agreed to) to 62,500. And then Biden said he would raise it again to 125,000 for the next federal fiscal year. But what he didn’t do is sign the presidential declaration. Without it, the program doesn’t expand. It stays as it was under Trump, an all-time low.
At least a dozen families coming to Utah, six of whom were reuniting with family or close friends, saw their plans derailed. The hope is that it’s temporary, but, for some, the pause means they’ll need to go through screening processes again, adding months to their journey. The fear is some may never make it.
Nationwide, more than 700 flights for refugees were canceled.
The White House hasn’t explained why Biden has put off signing the declaration, but promises he eventually will. Press secretary Jen Psaki said this week, “It’s an issue he remains committed to.”
The delay has left the once enthusiastic resettlement agencies in a rough spot.
“We’re very excited to hear the great support for refugee resettlement and that there is the promise of increased arrivals,” said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Utah. “On the other hand, there’s a deep level of frustration.”
Refugee’s family still stuck in Africa
She tells the story of a man in his early 20s from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He arrived in Utah in 2019. For some bureaucratic reason, his case got separated from that of his mother and siblings, but the plan was they’d come to Utah. Trump’s restrictions on the U.S. refugee program made that difficult. Still, the family made it through extensive background checks and interviews. Their flight was scheduled to arrive in February. It then was canceled and so were their refugee cases, placing them in limbo.
“The initial vision was that he was going to be coming to the United States with his siblings and his mother, and that’s just not going to happen,” El-Deiry said. “And now there’s a loss of hope there.”
El-Deiry said she can’t say for sure that the family’s plans were upended by Biden’s lack of action, and she doesn’t know why the president hasn’t signed the presidential declaration.
Her counterpart at Catholic Community Services of Utah, Aden Batar, has a theory, though.
“We are expecting that to be signed at any moment,” said Batar, who is director of migration and refugee services for CCS. “But I think the issues at the border may have delayed signing that.”
He’s referring to the big influx in undocumented immigrants arriving at the southern border, many coming from countries like Honduras and Guatemala, seeking asylum. The spike in these migrants, including unaccompanied children, has stressed border agents and government shelters. Republicans are calling it a crisis. Biden has placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of finding a solution.
Batar believes this politically charged development may have led the White House to hit pause on expanding the refugee program.
CCS saw flights scrapped for a few families in March. The hope is those trips are put back on the schedule once Biden signs the declaration. Those families, also from Congo, have been living in a refugee camp for years. They were told a week or so before they were supposed to arrive in Utah that their flights were canceled.
The International Rescue Committee’s national office put out a report April 9 warning that Biden would welcome in the fewest refugees of any president since the modern-day program began in 1980 if he failed to take action. The IRC estimated the Biden administration would bring in 4,510 refugees before the federal fiscal year ends at the end of September.
More than 100 state and local leaders signed a letter last week urging the president to sign the declaration. It included four Utahns — House Democratic leader Brian King of Salt Lake City, state Rep. Elizabeth Weight of West Valley City, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
“In Salt Lake County, we witness the positive impacts of our refugee population every day,” Wilson said. “Refugees invigorate our economies, bring innovation to our towns, and strengthen our communities through their contributions to our public life and cultural institutions.”
Utah expects refugees to arrive within weeks
Batar remains optimistic.
“I’m very confident that the refugees will start arriving, if not in April, at least not later than the beginning of May,” Batar said. “We’re still advocating. We’re not going to give up until the president signs.”
It’s not a hard position for him to take because he contrasts this delay with the actions of Trump, who sought to diminish the refugee program, significantly restricting the number of people allowed in the country. He also banned people from coming from some predominantly Muslim countries, which stopped refugees arriving from places such as Syria.
Both CCS and the IRC in Utah had layoffs, because they are funded based on the number of refugees they resettle. They received hate mail from Trump supporters, and the refugees they helped often expressed fear of being deported.
It only got worse when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Many of these refugees worked in jobs that made them more likely to contract COVID-19. They needed help understanding the rush of new information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People lost jobs and got sick.
“I have been doing resettlement since 1996,” Batar said. “I have never seen such a challenging time.”
In 2019, a third of the nation’s resettlement agencies either closed for good or suspended their programs. Trump let states opt out, and a number of Republican-led states did.
And yet, Utah’s refugee support network remained relatively strong.
State leaders, like former Gov. Gary Herbert, championed the refugee program. While some governors announced they’d accept no refugees, Herbert asked for more.
Asha Parekh, the director of the state’s refugee services offices, and her team seek to help the 65,000 refugees living in Utah. She said the state’s actions and the comments from people like Herbert “helped calm the fears of refugees.”
When Biden won the White House, the first emotion Batar felt was relief. Trump’s policies would come to an end.
“This is not who we are as Americans. We do not want to live in a country that is divided, where the policies are harsh, not welcoming, and also this extremism that was threatening our democracy and our daily lives” Batar said. “This is not who we are as Americans.”
Batar and El-Deiry want to see Utah rise from a low of 238 refugees resettled in 2020 back to where the program was at the end of the Obama administration, around 1,200 per year.
If Biden acts, Batar expects Catholic Community Services to resettle about 300 refugees in Utah before the next fiscal year starts in October and the International Rescue Committee would bring in about the same number. They then want to double that in fiscal 2022.