I was public about my vote for Joe Biden last fall – largely motivated by his bold, biblically-aligned vision for refugee resettlement. I experienced pushback from my faith community as a result. And now, as President Biden has formalized a historically low refugee resettlement ceiling of just 15,000, I am left wondering if the president is a man of his word.
As much as I abhorred the vast majority of Trump’s policies, one by one, he delivered on what he promised. But the actual tragedy isn’t that Biden hasn’t kept his word: It’s that thousands of vulnerable children and families are left in harm’s way.
Like most pro-life voters, I’ve voted for Republicans for most of my life. But as my own views of what it meant to be “pro-life” expanded to include refugees and other vulnerable immigrants, my voting decisions became more complicated. Over time, I’ve lost faith that my vote can really impact the well-being of unborn children.
I gradually became convinced that Republican candidates were using me: playing on my pro-life convictions without actually taking actions that led to meaningful changes. Even if they did have the right intentions, a president did not have the power to make significant changes in this area: I found persuasive the evidence from evangelical thought leaders like David French, Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani, widely circulated among evangelicals in the lead-up to the 2020 election, that who is president actually has had very little impact on the number of abortions.
At the same time, my reading of Scripture led me to conclude that the foundational Christian belief that each human being is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) has pro-life ramifications that go beyond (though still include) unborn children. That includes refugees who have fled persecution, whose lives also matter to God. U.S. policies of either offering them safe haven or turning them away – to remain in situations where some were at risk of further persecution and harm, warehoused in refugee camps unable to access the fullness of life I believe God intends for them – are also a pro-life issue.
Unlike abortion, where the views of the president have only a marginal impact, refugee resettlement is a unique policy area where existing law gives the president almost unilateral authority. He or she is required by law to “consult” with Congress, but does not need their consent to set the refugee ceiling as high as he or she would like.
Presidents Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush have all set that ceiling at or above 140,000. President Trump – largely fulfilling a campaign commitment – reduced that ceiling year after year, down to a historic low of 15,000 set last October. In the refugee community where I minister in Dallas, I’ve seen the devastating effects of family reunifications indefinitely deferred. And the infrastructure to resettle refugees has been decimated as a result – my friends at World Relief, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies nationally, had to close eight of their refugee resettlement offices and lay off more than one-third of their U.S.-based staff, with other agencies similarly affected.
In what seemed like a stark contrast, candidate Joe Biden committed to return to a refugee ceiling of 125,000. His expression of his Catholic faith (even writing the foreword to a book by a Catholic priest on the importance of refugee protection) and his history as an original cosponsor of the 1980 Refugee Act in the U.S. Senate left me no doubt that President Biden would restore the refugee program. And given that he clearly had the authority to do so, it was a major factor in determining my vote.
There’s evidence that white evangelicals moved toward President Biden – enough to have changed the outcome of the election in swing states like Georgia and Michigan – and many whom I know were motivated particularly by thinking similar to mine: that a vote for Biden would certainly mean a pro-life change in refugee policy, while a vote for Trump would be unlikely to change the number of abortions.
Of course, not every evangelical agreed with this view: 58 percent of white evangelicals supported shutting down refugee resettlement, and I heard from some of them. When I was interviewed by The New York Times, I got all sorts of nasty hate mail, calling me a baby-killer, a socialist and worse. But what hurt worst were the messages that came from people whom I actually know and love.
Still, I felt confident that I’d made the right choice, given two imperfect options.
After a promising start – a Biden executive order that implied a new refugee ceiling was forthcoming, then a legally-required consultation informing Congress of the administration’s intention to change the refugee ceiling to 62,500 mid-fiscal-year for “emergency” reasons – the president, without explanation, failed to sign that ceiling. For months.
Some speculated that the delay was politically motivated: a poorly-phrased polling question had found the refugee executive order had been relatively unpopular. Apparently, even the State Department was caught off guard by this delay, as it had confirmed flights for hundreds of refugees that had to be canceled in the absence of a signed revised refugee ceiling.
Then, on Friday, President Biden did sign a revised refugee ceiling – not for 62,500 as promised, but instead affirming as “justified” the Trump-level ceiling of 15,000.
Evangelical leaders, many of whom criticized President Trump when he revised the refugee ceiling to more than three times that level in his first week in office, came out forcefully. Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore lamented that “rhetoric is no refuge for the persecuted,” and World Relief president Scott Arbeiter accused the president of “betraying his commitment to build back better.” I felt profoundly disillusioned, and a late-Friday walk-back, clarifying that President Biden actually still does intend to raise the refugee ceiling for this year, though he is not doing so immediately and is unlikely to raise the ceiling to the 62,500 he promised, is of little consolation.
President Biden seems to think there will be political costs to following through on his campaign commitments. He may be right – but they might not be the consequences he expects. Anti-refugee Trump voters are unlikely to be swayed, but he is driving away conflicted pro-life Christians like me who took a chance on him, and now aren’t so sure. Nearly 5,000 Christians have joined a petition drafted by my organization, We Welcome Refugees, created to insist that the president keep his promise.
Ultimately, though, President Biden shouldn’t sign a refugee ceiling at the promised level of 62,500 because of political reasons, but because it is the right thing to do. Because, as National Association of Evangelicals president Walter Kim notes, so long as “this promise remains unfulfilled … tens of thousands of refugees [are left] in uncertainty and despair.” Because, as Pope Francis has said, our approach to vulnerable migrants is not only about their well-being, but is “about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family.” Because, as Joe Biden once believed, these questions are “of our common humanity – and our obligations to one another [which] sometimes … can be uncomfortable because so often we fall short.”
Mr. President, I’m asking you to keep your commitments, to be a man of your word — to voters and to refugees.
Tess Clarke is the director of We Welcome Refugees.