“When are my daughters going to come?” “Do you know if my husband will be coming soon?” “Have you heard anything about my brother?”
These are common questions at World Relief Spokane. Family members get separated in the process of fleeing violence and persecution overseas. Once some of them arrive in Spokane, they are eager for their loved ones to join them in the safety and opportunity that our city and our nation provide.
Unfortunately, this year we have had to give a lot of bad news. Over and over we tell anxious refugees that their loved ones have not yet been referred into our system by the U.S. government. Despite the overwhelming need (more than 22 million refugees in the world today, the most in recorded history), and the outstanding security record of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (3 million refugees resettled to the U.S. without causing a single terrorism-related fatality), fewer refugees are coming now than ever before.
On Jan. 27, 2017, our president issued an executive order cutting refugee admissions from 110,000 people to only 50,000. At the beginning of the new federal fiscal year (Oct. 1), he reduced the number even further for the current year, down to 45,000. This is by far the lowest number allowed in our nation’s history.
In addition to lowering the ceiling for the number who can arrive, the current administration is restricting the number of people who come through the process. Four months into this fiscal year only 11,800 refugees have been allowed into our nation. For perspective, last year Washington state alone welcomed almost 4,000 refugees in one year. In Spokane that means we went from receiving 597 refugees in 2016 to hearing last week that we should expect no more than 191 this year. That is a 68 percent reduction, taking us to less than one-third the number of refugees we have capacity to receive at World Relief.
This drastic change in refugee arrivals has forced us to tell many families over and over again that they will have to keep waiting before they can see their loved ones. Sitting with a mother or father who haven’t seen their children in over two years is palpably painful. Talking to a woman who lives alone waiting for her husband to join her after years of separation is heart-wrenching. As a parent and a husband myself, I can’t imagine the daily sorrow and uncertainty many of our refugee families feel as they live in this unknown.
Khalfani and Josephine are just one of many local families who live with empty chairs around their dinner table. Reunited in Spokane this September after two years of separation, Khalfani and Josephine say they have much to be grateful for (“Refugee couple reunite after 2 years,” Sept. 17, 2017). Despite fleeing war zones, losing everything, being separated for years and seeing loved ones die, they say they are forever grateful to now be together on U.S. soil.
However, their reunification story is not over. They are still waiting for their two daughters, Asia, who’s now 20, and Amisa, 14. They have done everything they can to bring their daughters here, but at this point it is out of their hands. I have watched their sorrow and discouragement increase as each month goes by and there is no news about their daughters. With tears in their eyes, they have told me they will not stop holding out for hope for the day that they are able to be reunited as a family. However, that day seems further and further away as the national refugee admission numbers keep dwindling month after month.
The president’s refugee ban was supposed to create time for the State Department to study the security of our vetting system (which is already the most comprehensive and advanced system in the world), but no substantial findings of problems have ever been released. The vague and unsupported claims about “security concerns” offered by our president are not acceptable reasons to ignore the plight of millions of refugees around the world and keep families here torn apart.
Our nation created the Refugee Admissions Program for good reasons in 1980. These reasons have proved themselves over the past 38 years to be rock solid. Refugee resettlement is a solution to a horrific humanitarian crisis, supports the value of healthy unseparated families, provides credibility to our foreign policy, assures our allies that we will not abandon those who take risks to help our troops overseas, and adds tens of billions of dollars to our economy and our social services systems (for more information and research to support these claims, visit WorldRelief.org).
A year after the first refugee executive order, we are reminded that we must continue to stand for and with refugees and immigrants in our community, advocating for compassionate, commonsense policies.
The next time I see Khalfani and Josephine I will tell them the same thing I told them last time: “I don’t know when your children will come. But I am hopeful they will come soon. I will be there standing beside you when we greet them at the airport one day.” I hope Spokane and America will stand with them in the meantime.
Mark Finney, Ph.D., is director of World Relief Spokane.
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