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A refugee man holds an American Flag at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.
A man holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony for 14 refugees at the Capitol during World Refugee Week in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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Modern Christian pioneers need our help, too

The U.S. is on track to admit an astonishingly low number of refugees this year. Many of them are fleeing religious persecution.

The late Sen. Bob Bennett’s speech on July 24, 1997, stands as one of the most stirring tributes to Latter-day Saint pioneers ever given. Delivered on the United States Senate floor, Bennett — then honoring the 150th anniversary of Brigham Young’s arrival to the Salt Lake Valley — said:

“In today’s world, when we see articles and books constantly written about how we are all victims, we would expect that (the pioneers) would have spent their time lamenting over that which they lost and focusing on their resentments and their bitterness and that which other people owed them. They did not. … Instead, their focus was on the future.”

That forward-facing focus is something America needs, and it ought to manifest itself in the way we treat our citizens of tomorrow.

Millions of modern-day pioneers, many of them Christians fleeing religious persecution, need help — and the U.S.’s response in recent years has been insufficient.

Last summer, a report from World Relief and Open Doors USA found that the number of Christian refugees from countries where they faced extreme persecution neared an all-time low. At one point, the U.S. was on track to admit 90% fewer Christian refugees during fiscal year 2020 than it did in 2015.

Though a fraction of the deduction was caused by COVID-19 restrictions, most of it was a result of administrative action long before lockdowns and travel restrictions were in place. Refugee resettlement in the United States plummeted under the Trump administration, and those escaping religious oppression are not exempt — the combined Christian refugee resettlement in the first three years under President Donald Trump was eclipsed by FY 2016 alone.

The first six months of the Biden administration have not shown much improvement. Despite promising to welcome 125,000 refugees in his first year, President Joe Biden soon changed course and set a goal of 62,500. In April, the White House again changed course, announcing it would maintain Trump’s refugee cap of 15,000, the lowest since the refugee resettlement program’s inception in 1980. The decision was reportedly Biden’s alone, to the chagrin of many top aides, and was likely fueled by concerns about the U.S.-Mexico border crisis — though the department that processes asylum seekers at the southern border is entirely separate from that which vets and admits refugees.

The backlash was swift from immigration advocates and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. The White House soon restored its original goal of 62,500, with a caveat: “The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” an official White House statement read. “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years.”

In reality, we may fail to reach half of Trump’s cap of 15,000 — a number Biden said “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.” At present, the U.S. is on track to admit 6,400 refugees this year — the lowest amount in the four decades since such data was tracked.

When the Refugee Act of 1980 was introduced, the annual ceiling for refugee admissions was set at 230,000 before hovering above 60,000 for decades. The Trump administration set the ceiling at historic low levels for four years, and the Biden administration has yet to show any sign of repudiating the downward trend. Canada has replaced the United States as the world leader in refugee resettlement, and last summer, a Canadian federal judge declared the U.S. “unsafe” for refugees. All the while, there were 26.4 million refugees worldwide, a number that grew during the pandemic — as did persecution against Christians globally.

While several government figures and agencies, like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, have called for the annual ceiling to be set to 95,000 refugees, the president ultimately has the exclusive power to decide. There is no benefit in being a light on a hill if we flip off the switch when huddled masses are attracted by the glow.

Utah’s pioneer heritage engenders a different approach. The Utah Compact provides principles to guide the immigration discussion. State leaders have consistently asked for more refugees. Latter-day Saint Charities has donated millions of dollars to refugee resettlement agencies. The new Utah Refugee Center provides on-the-ground resources and support for newcomers.

Now is no time to abandon those principles or that heritage. Rather, as Sen. Bennett said in 1997, we must latch onto the foundation pioneers laid and carry them into the future.

“The legacy that is of greatest value to me and to the people of my state … (is the pioneers’) legacy of hope and optimism and a willingness to forgive and forget, and look to the future,” concluded Sen. Bennett. “That is what we are celebrating today as we look back on 150 years since the time they finally found their place, far away in the West, which God had in fact for them prepared, where they have indeed been blessed.”

Our greatest opportunity to honor the religious refugees that helped settle Utah is to honor their modern counterparts. These pioneers, too, should find a place.

Samuel Benson is a staff writer for the Deseret News.

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