We Americans have long prided ourselves on offering a safe haven to people seeking refuge from conflict and repression. The theme is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Refugees have contributed immeasurably to American life. They include world-changing figures like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, visionary artists like Marc Chagall, popular entertainers like Gloria Estefan, respected musicians like my Indiana University faculty colleague Menahem Pressler, and two secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
The question of how many refugees to admit has always been challenging, however. With an estimated 26 million refugees in the world today, we clearly can’t accommodate them all. But we can do more than we have been doing in recent years.
Under law, refugees are defined as people who have experienced or have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a social group. People who flee poverty and hardship, no matter how severe, don’t qualify.
The issue gets complicated because refugee policy is related to, and sometimes confused with, immigration policy. With immigration, we should set consistent priorities that benefit America. Immigrants who are well educated and highly skilled, especially in science and engineering, are important for our economy. At the same time, employers are struggling to fill jobs at the low end of the pay scale, which immigrants may want.
Welcoming refugees is more of a compassionate responsibility. We want to do our part, within our capacity, to help people who have been displaced by war and violence or who cannot live safely in their home countries. Our refugee policy is an important aspect of our foreign policy. It sends a clear signal about our role in the world and the kind of nation we are.
Since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, the U.S. has admitted 3.1 million refugees. In recent years, many have fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with many others coming from Myanmar and Ukraine. The largest numbers have settled in Texas, Washington, Ohio, California, and New York.
The number of refugees entering the United States reached 85,000 in the last year of the Obama presidency. But President Donald Trump, with his “America First” approach, gradually reduced the ceiling for annual refugee admissions to 15,000, at a time when the number of worldwide refugees reached its highest level since World War II. Trump’s travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries choked off the flow of refugees from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria, with more than 6 million refugees.
Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to dramatically raise the cap on refugees. For more than three months, however, he took a cautious approach, leaving the number where Trump had set it and frustrating refugee advocates. Recently, saying the refugee program “embodies America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world,” Biden raised the refugee ceiling for this fiscal year to 62,500.
Going further, he wants to set a goal of admitting 125,000 refugees next year. That won’t be easy. Vetting of refugee applicants by the State Department takes nearly two years, on average. Resettling refugees relies on nonprofit agencies that will need to add staff and recruit volunteers after the relative inactivity of the Trump years. And there is sure to be political resistance.
But a smart, thoughtful, and compassionate policy on refugees is in America’s national interest. It’s good that we are taking up the challenge of getting the policy right.
Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.