Last week, President Biden at last made good on a commitment to raise the refugee ceiling to 62,500 newcomers. Biden had signaled this plan in February, only to devastate refugee advocates last month by signing a ceiling of 15,000 for the remainder of 2021, throwing the plans and lives of thousands of people anticipating a home in the U.S. into disarray.
This week’s reversal came in response to sustained strong pushback from both Democratic allies and refugee resettlement groups, including evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish organizations. But the new ceiling came with a caveat: “The sad truth,” the President said, “is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year.” With just five months remaining in the federal fiscal year, the President indicated, there is not enough time “to undo the damage of the last four years.”
While it’s certainly true that former President Trump did a lot of damage to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, I simply don’t believe the logistical problems of admitting more refugees are insurmountable. And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proves that they very likely aren’t.
Upon entering office in 2015, Trudeau had a lot of promises to live up to. In particular, Trudeau had promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war there. Well, I’m happy to say that he kept his promise; Trudeau assumed office on Nov. 4, 2015, and 25,555 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada by the end of February 2016. One of the Syrian passengers arriving on the first flight commented, “We suffered a lot…Now, we feel as if we got out of hell and we came to paradise.”
What’s more, these newcomers to Canada were supported at every step of the way as they set up new lives across the country. Around half were sponsored by religious and community groups—from poker clubs to neighborhood blocks. These Canadians offered financial, practical, and emotional support.
Since then, Canada has remained committed to ambitious resettlement goals. Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has promised to welcome around 65,000 refugees and vulnerable immigrants every year for 2021, 2022, and 2023.
To put some of these numbers into perspective, if the U.S., with its far larger population, were to resettle as many refugees per capita as Canada, it would be welcoming more than 565,000 refugees per year. Canada is living proof that logistical challenges can be overcome and ambitious resettlement goals met.
It’s not like Americans can’t get things done. We Canadians have marveled at the Biden administration’s capacity to roll out COVID-19 vaccines across the nation in a heartbeat. Canadian leadership has taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning, and yet the U.S. sprang out of bed late, shot out the front door, and got itself fully vaccinated (more or less) while Canada is still sitting at the breakfast table getting ready for the day. Looking in from the outside, it seems that for American politics, it’s true that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Biden has also suggested that America’s situation is unique because the U.S. government must simultaneously strengthen its immigration systems both at the U.S.-Mexico border and through refugee resettlement programs. This line of thinking, however, isn’t totally right.
Unlike unaccompanied children or asylum seekers processed at the U.S.-Mexico border, refugee resettlement in the U.S. is the primary responsibility of the U.S. State Department, often working in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The refugee pathway involves meticulous vetting that takes place before travel to the U.S. Upon arrival, refugees are supported by nine resettlement agencies, most of which—including World Relief, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Church World Service—are faith-based organizations. These agencies are presently poised on the edge of their seat, ready to welcome newcomers.
So, not only are refugees processed through a different pathway than asylum seekers at the border, but there are many agencies and organizations ready to step up and help. Biden should consider not just these organizations and agencies, but also the thousands who voted for him to help fight a battle for the soul of America. Reversing Trump’s xenophobic refugee policies was high on the list of the Biden’s priorities during his campaign; it should remain high on the list today.
In my cowritten book, Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics, we argue that political motives and calculations are always less important than the need to simply do what is right. We know that if America puts its will behind a policy, America can get it done. And we know from Canada’s example that logistical difficulties don’t have the final say on how ambitious countries can be in resettling refugees.
Biden has a unique opportunity to restore America’s humanitarian leadership and reforge America’s identity on the global stage. Implementing a significantly increased refugee ceiling is a good first step: Now he should harness the ingenuity for which the U.S. is known to meet that goal. And if he needs advice on how to make that happen, he should call up Justin Trudeau.
Mark Glanville is the coauthor of Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics and an associate professor at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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