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In rejecting refugees, we betray our better selves

Packing up their families and fleeing violence and persecution, refugees embody the courage and determination that characterize the best parts of our United States.

Packing up their families and fleeing violence and persecution, refugees embody the courage and determination that characterize the best parts of our United States.
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Are we a nation that stands up for human rights and freedom? Are we a nation that protects the vulnerable and helps people fleeing persecution? Are we a nation committed to religious freedom, equality, and dignity?

On Sept. 26, the president of the United States said no to these national values. With an order slashing refugee admissions in 2020, he turned the United States back to the shameful days before World War II, when we joined with other countries in rejecting Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. At the 1938 Evian Conference in France, the United States was one of 32 countries that refused to change their immigration policies to admit these desperate refugees. The next year, the United States turned away the SS St. Louis, refusing entry to more than 900 Jewish refugees on board, sending them back to Europe and, for many of them, to their deaths in the Holocaust.

Now the U.S. government is repeating the sins of the past.

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Lowest number since 1980

The legal limit on the number of refugees admitted to the United States is set each year by the president. President Barack Obama set the number at 110,000 in the last year of his administration. Every year since taking office, the Trump administration has lowered that number. Now the Trump administration has limited refugee admissions in 2020 to 18,000, the lowest number set since the current refugee law was enacted in 1980. Each year, the administration has granted entry to even fewer refugees than allowed by its painfully low limits.

This shameful decision comes weeks after an order that bars almost every single asylum seeker arriving in the United States.

Refugees and asylum seekers have to meet the same stringent conditions. They have to prove that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Refugees apply from outside the United States, usually after spending years in a refugee camp outside their home country. Asylum seekers apply from inside the United States or at a port of entry.

Millions of refugees wait

Around the world, the number of refugees is at an all-time high, with people driven from their homelands by persecution, war, and climate change. Millions of refugees wait in countries neighboring their own, which are usually poorer countries with few resources to meet their needs.

Minnesota has welcomed refugees over the years. Outstanding resettlement programs of Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the International Institute of Minnesota, and Arrive Ministries have supported and worked with refugees making a fresh start here.

Minnesota’s refugees come from every part of the world. Hmong refugees arrived in the decades after fighting side by side with U.S. troops in Southeast Asia. Refugees from Liberia, Guatemala, and El Salvador fled persecution during those countries’ civil wars. Somali and other East African refugees arrived more recently, as did Karen refugees fleeing genocidal violence in their homeland. Minnesota’s refugees have quickly learned English, found jobs, started businesses, and become integral and valued parts of our communities.

Refugees embody courage, determination

Packing up their families and fleeing violence and persecution, refugees embody the courage and determination that characterize the best parts of our United States. They seek safety and opportunity to make a life for their families. They are survivors and builders and dreamers who often endured unimaginable hardship and struggle just to get here.

We need refugees.

We need their burning passion for freedom. We need their fierce love of family. We need their vision which sees the United States as better than we actually are. We need their hearts and hands to help us become the better people and nation of their dreams and our own.

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Rev. Curtiss DeYoung is the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Council of Churches. Veena Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of MinnesotaDeepinder Singh Mayell is the executive director of the Binger Center for New Americans, University of Minnesota. Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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