The White House announced Thursday its plan to further slash already historically low refugee admissions for the fourth time in a row. For the past 40 years the refugee number has averaged 90,000 annually and ranged as high as 200,000. Last year 30,000 refugees found new hope on our shores – including 161 here in Spokane. For the coming year, our president dropped the ceiling to 18,000.
Why such a drastic decline when the global number of refugees is at an all-time high, 26 million? According to acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli, there are simply too many asylum seekers at the southern border and large backlogs in immigration courts. However, those reasons are hollow and deceptive. For one, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has a separate source of funding than programs that process pending asylum cases at the southern border. Cutting the refugee program does nothing to change resources for asylum seekers. Additionally, refugees are not processed through immigration courts because they are vetted overseas before they arrive, so reducing refugees does nothing to impact the immigration court system. Moreover, Congress is fond of reminding us that the constitution gives them authority over the budget, not the president. Congress has approved funding for 75,000+ refugees each year of this administration – our own U.S. Representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has publicly endorsed 75,000 refugees every year.
Decimating the refugee program represents a tragic betrayal of American values. It is yet another example of the anti-immigrant animus that has become all too common from this administration. It also echoes of darker parts of our nation’s past: the Chinese exclusion act, turning away shiploads of Jews fleeing “rumors” of persecution in Germany in the 1930s, and internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent. Have we learned nothing from our own history? Have we forgotten who we are as a society and where we came from? How can we dare sit around a turkey dinner in a few weeks knowing that if the pilgrims lived today they would have less than 0.1% chance of being admitted to America as religious refugees?
As frustrating as it is to see the president of the United States destroy our refugee program, the true blame lies elsewhere. In a democratic republic the people are responsible for not only choosing their leaders, but holding them accountable to do the will of the people. In particular, religious institutions and movements have played crucial roles in influencing our national leaders to face the demons of our society and ensure liberty and justice for all. It is no coincidence that the second great awakening took place in the lead up to abolition. It is no coincidence that the civil rights movement was led by clergy.
I know as well as anyone that churches and other groups are not perfect. I’m a pastor, so I’ve seen it all. But I am convinced that every society needs some kind of moral compass, what one might call a “soul,” to guide their communities and leaders toward justice, truth, fairness, and flourishing.
How is it that celebrity religious leaders frequently appear in photos by the president’s side, but say nothing to him about their savior whose parents carried him across the Egyptian border as a Middle Eastern refugee? How can famous pastors use their vast audiences to call for a national day of prayer when the president gets his ego bruised, but ignore millions of fellow Christians and others who suffer and die daily in refugee camps around the world? How have we forgotten Jesus’ own mission statement: “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19)?
The American Church has lost its voice, perhaps also its soul. If so, it is not the zombie in the White House we have to blame, but zombies in our pulpits. I pray for our president and our nation. And I pray most of all for those who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ in America. May we find our soul.
Rev. Mark Finney, Ph.D. is the pastor at Emmaus Church Spokane and director of World Relief Spokane.
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