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‘It’s a very sad day for America’: Utah refugees, supporters troubled by Trump administration’s proposed refugee limit

Rep. Ben McAdams asks president to reconsider 18,000 cap for refugees, praises Utah’s ‘proud legacy’ welcoming them

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams listens to residents voice their concern about the Olympia Hills development proposal at a town hall in Herriman High School on Thursday, June 14, 2018. Many members of the community are concerned about the high density
FILE - Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams listens to residents voice their concern about the Olympia Hills development proposal at a town hall in Herriman High School on Thursday, June 14, 2018.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah refugees and advocates said Friday they are sad and worried about the Trump administration’s proposal to cap refugee admission to the lowest number since the program started in 1980.

“It’s really hard to see our president, this current administration, kind of destroying the refugee resettlement program block by block,” said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services, one of the largest resettlement organizations in the state.

Under the administration’s proposal released Thursday, the U.S. would allow just 18,000 refugees into the country starting Oct. 1. Of them, 5,000 would be religious refugees, while 1,500 spots would be reserved for those fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Associated Press reported.

In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. resettled 53,700 refugees, according to the Pew Research Center. In fiscal year 2018, about 22,500 were resettled. Historically, the U.S. has allowed an average of 95,000 refugees into the country every year.

The same day the administration released its proposal, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, issued a letter to President Donald Trump calling for him to “set a robust worldwide refugee ceiling that reflects our country’s great capacity for resettling those seeking refuge and to direct all agencies working with prospective and admitted refugees to ensure the country meets that admission level.”

The U.S. has demonstrated “time and time again” that it has the capacity to welcome refugees without sacrificing safety or economic opportunities for current citizens, McAdams wrote.

“What’s more, my home state of Utah has shown that refugees add to economic expansion when they have the opportunity to contribute to our communities and workplaces. My state has a proud legacy of bipartisan support for a robust resettlement program and of engagement from our faith communities to welcome those fleeing violence and persecution,” he said.

The first refugee legislation was enacted in 1948, opening the U.S. to hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans. Later, those fleeing Communist countries were able to make their way here, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

After the Vietnam War, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. That year, the U.S. welcomed 207,116 refugees, the office says.

Of Thursday’s new limit proposal, “It’s a very sad day for America. It really represents the damage that our leadership is causing in protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, and it’s really, it’s not necessary. It’s contrary to the bipartisan support that this program, the Refugee Resettlement Program, has received for decades now,” said Natalie El-Deiry, director of the International Rescue Committee in Utah, another of the state’s largest resettlement organizations.

She believes the decreasing number “speaks to the United States not holding true to its values about what is right and good about America.”

Historically, most Americans have understood the immigrant story because either they or their ancestors immigrated themselves by choice or by force, and it’s part of “what this country was founded on,” according to El-Deiry.

“I think we’ve just lost that notion and that idea that we were all immigrants at one time, for many of us. That being said, I think this administration is playing to the rhetoric of fear of the other,” she sad.

But El-Deiry believes Utahns are welcoming of refugees and understand the value they add to the community.

While Batar now works to help refugees, his service is motivated by firsthand experience of the struggles facing those left with no choice but to flee their home countries.

Among the first Somalian refugees to Utah in the early ’90s, Batar and his family escaped violence after the country’s civil war broke out.

“It was impossible for me and my family to stay at that time. It was not safe for any one of us, or anybody,” Batar said.

They fled to Kenya and applied for the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.

“We waited for two years while the process was going, and we had to go through all the process. And we were one of the very few lucky ones that were accepted to come to the U.S. in 1994,” he said.

While they waited, Batar says the family lived between a refugee camp and a city. He also has worked in a refugee camp as a volunteer and says overcrowding and poor conditions make the camps “not a place where anybody wants to live.”

“And you know, people don’t have hope who live there,” Batar explained.

He said he thinks decreasing the numbers year by year is a way for the president to fulfill his campaign promises. However, “I don’t think this is what, as a country, we wanted. United States is a country that always welcomed people that are escaping violence, and (seeking) religious freedom, and so forth. And if we don’t provide them the protection that they need, I don’t think any other country would do that.”

Many businesses rely on a refugee workforce, he said. And many Utahns reach out to the Catholic organization “every day that they want to help refugees.”

Fatima Dirie, refugee community liaison in Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office, sharing her own reflections, said: “As a former refugee myself I think resettled refugees represent the future of America, and refugee populations symbolize a new generation that is diverse, compassionate, educated, innovative and civically engaged.”

She also called the resettlement program a “critical cornerstone” for the growth of society.

Dirie urged Utahns to contact their congressional leaders to ask them to support the GRACE Act, which would set a minimum annual goal for the number of refugees to be admitted to no less than 95,000.

According to Danielle Stamos, spokeswoman for Catholic Community Services, news of the cap of refugees allowed this coming year came as a blow to those working to help them.

“There’s millions of people displaced across the world, and for a lot of them, they’ll just be warehoused in these refugee camps unless there’s an answer. And for a lot of people, coming to the United States was that answer,” Stamos said.

She urged Utahns to let their representatives know they support refugee resettlement. Stamos also encouraged people to befriend refugees and, if interested, volunteer with Catholic Community Services. More information can be found at cuutah.org.