WASHINGTON - Within 25 days, President Donald Trump will make a decision that will affect tens of thousands of refugees.
On Wednesday, advocates lobbying members of Congress on Capitol Hill pressed for that number to be 75,000.
Last year, Trump wanted it to be no more than 45,000.
The reality in the last 11 months is closer to 20,000.
“It is very difficult right now,” Pastor Mike Wilker told 21 activists-in-training in a basement meeting room of his Capitol Hill parish, two blocks from Congress. “It gets depressing.”
By the end of September, Trump will have consulted with federal lawmakers and, with advice from agencies like the State Department, he will make a presidential determination about the maximum number of refugees the U.S. will allow in during the coming fiscal year, which starts October 1.
The volunteers took off after a few hours of training from LIRS, a national refugee resettlement organization, and Lutheran Social Services-National Capital Area, its local affiliate that hosted the event. They split into groups of two, three, sometimes more, and walked toward the offices of 19 U.S. representatives and senators — mostly Democrats, with a few Republicans.
It’s an issue, said Fiona Tomlin of Veterans for American Ideals, that “crosscuts members of every political stripe.”
Special immigrant visas
The Trump administration zealously curbed refugee arrivals within a week of Trump’s inauguration. Since then, through various lawsuits and iterations of the president’s order, the U.S. refugee program is a whisper of its former self. And the changes reach into special immigrant visa categories known as SIVs for Iraqis and Afghans who aided the U.S. government since the U.S. military interventions in those countries in the early 2000s.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse studied the talking points about refugees during a break Wednesday before the congressional meetings. She’s retired now, on the cusp of becoming a deacon in the Episcopal Church after three decades of serving as a diplomat, including time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Her son — a captain in the U.S. Marines — served in both countries as well, and her former bodyguard came to the U.S. through a special immigrant visa for longtime embassy workers overseas.
“I’ve seen how important it is to have the support of these kinds of people that we bring into the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program,” said Derse. “It’s really important from a national security perspective. We made a promise, and we need to keep that promise … and I believe we have an obligation, in the bigger picture, to welcome refugees.”
So the 20-odd, newly minted advocates prepared.
They asked questions about why they should ask members of Congress to consider a 75,000-refugee cap for 2019 when that feels so unrealistic in the current political climate. (“If we say 50 [thousand] or 45 [thousand], what kind of message are we sending? Are we giving up …?” Javier Cuebas, of LIRS, said in explaining the decision to aim higher.) They decided who would tell what personal anecdotes during their meetings — the refugee family their church welcomed, the apartment their synagogue prepared for an SIV recipient, the fact that an organization that resettled 1,330 people last year is serving about 400 this year.
Making the case
The office of Representative Blumenauer is friendly territory for them. The Oregon Democrat not only supports the SIV program, he’s sponsored a bill to add more visas. There’s a modified American flag over the reception desk that says “In our America … immigrants and refugees are welcome.” An aide is waiting to meet the quintet of advocates.
Wilker, who ministers to a congregation on Capitol Hill that has facilitated the arrivals of SIV families, tells the aide he’s worried about the destruction of the immigration and refugee resettlement program.
“I can understand the need for double-checking," he says of the Trump administration’s claims that additional security measures were needed for refugees and SIVs, “ ... but we’re breaking promises left and right to these people.”