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Biden has rebuilt the refugee system after Trump-era cuts. What comes next in an election year?


COLUMBIA, S.C. — A church volunteer stood at an apartment door, beckoning inside a Congolese family for their first look at where they would live in America.

“Your new house!” volunteer Dan Davidson exclaimed as the couple and the woman’s brother stepped into the two-bedroom apartment in South Carolina’s capital, smiling tentatively at what would come next.

Inside, church volunteers had made quilts for the beds and set out an orange and yellow plastic dump truck and other toys for the couple’s son. The family watched closely as a translator showed them key features in their apartment: which knob matched which burner on the stovetop, how the garbage disposal and window blinds worked. They practiced working the thermostat and checked the water in the shower.

“We are so happy to get this place,” Kaaskile Kashindi said through a translator.

Now 28, Kashindi was born in Congo and fled with his family at age 3 to a refugee camp in Tanzania, where he lived until this spring. That’s when he, his wife, little boy and brother-in-law moved to Columbia, a university town of 140,000 people.

“We’re still new. We just need help right now,” Kashindi said.

Scenes like this are becoming more common as the American refugee program, long a haven for people fleeing violence around the world, rebounds from years of cutbacks under Donald Trump’s administration. The Biden administration has worked to streamline the process of screening and placing people in America while refugee resettlement agencies have opened new sites across the country.

If President Joe Biden meets his target of 125,000 refugees admitted this year, it would be the highest number of arrivals in more than three decades.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in a 2020 rematch with Biden this fall, has pledged to bar refugees from Gaza and reinstate his Muslim ban if elected, while also putting in place “ideological screening” for all immigrants. Trump’s website highlights his first-term decision to temporarily suspend the refugee program.

Even with immigration — legal or not — a divisive campaign issue, many who help refugees settle in the United States say the growing numbers of refugees have been generally welcomed by communities and employers in need of workers.

The word refugee is sometimes broadly used to refer to anyone fleeing war or persecution. Often it’s conflated with asylum-seekers who come directly to the U.S.-Mexico border. People like the family from Congo are coming through a different process, starting with an application abroad and with thorough vetting that can take years.

Usually they are referred to U.S. officials by the U.N. refugee agency, then interviewed by American immigration officials. There are background checks and medical screening.

The lucky few who are approved fly to towns across America to start new lives with the help of a nationwide network of resettlement agencies. They are eligible to become citizens eventually.

For decades, America led the world in refugee admissions in a program that had wide bipartisan support. Trump cut the program to the quick. By the time he left office in January 2021, he had set a record low goal of 15,000 refugees admitted a year. But even that mark wasn’t hit: Only 11,814 refugees came to the U.S. in Trump’s last year, compared with 84,994 at the end of the Obama administration.

Biden said he would reestablish the U.S. as a haven for refugees. It took a while.

His administration is now admitting more refugees and added about 150 new resettlement sites nationwide, said Sarah Cross, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

To reach a goal of 125,000 refugees admitted this year — the highest number since 1992 — the department has been increasing its overseas processing and making changes that streamline all the checks refugees undergo while keeping screening rigorous, Cross said. It has hired more staff and is doing more trips to interview prospective refugees overseas.

In 2020, Lutheran Services Carolinas resettled about 40 refugees in Columbia. This year, the organization expects to welcome about 440, said Seth Hershberger, the nonprofit’s refugee resettlement and immigration director. It has opened new sites in Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.

“It is chaotic sometimes,” Hershberger said from the agency’s office, tucked into a Lutheran church. “But with the support we’ve had … it’s been a good, good journey.”

The office is a bustle of case managers, employment specialists and other staffers; some were once refugees themselves. These staff and volunteers usually meet arriving refugees, making sure a meal they recognize is waiting for them.

From there, it’s a whirlwind of medical appointments, registration at government offices, opening a bank account, enrolling kids in school and eventually moving into permanent housing such as the Kashindi family’s apartment. They take classes in what is called “survival English” — how to call 911 if someone is sick, for example, or remembering your address so you can tell someone if you get lost.

In one recent class, five refugees sat at desks at a local church. Down the hall, a volunteer watched their kids so they could work on learning a new language.

The lesson was focused on calendars and days of the week, interspersed with a bit of American culture.

“In America, the calendar is very important. … There’s a lot of dates you’ll need to know,” said teacher Sarah Lewis, such as their children’s birthdays, doctor’s appointments and much more.

Two students were sisters from Honduras who had fled their homes and traveled to Mexico, where they lived for about a year until they learned they had been approved to come to South Carolina.

Leliz Bonilla Castro said she didn’t know much about Columbia when she arrived but she liked the warm weather and welcoming people. She said the refugee program had given her and her three children a future.

“For those who want and have the opportunity to come (to this country), it is the best way to save your life and to have a better future for your kids, which are the ones we think about the most as parents,” she said through a translator.

It wasn’t too long ago that South Carolina was one of many Republican-leaning states that balked at efforts to bring in Syrian refugees.

Hershberger, the Lutheran Services resettlement chief, pointed to another event — the U.S. evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans from Kabul during the 2021 troop withdrawal — as a game-changer. It led to an outpouring from Americans wanting to help.

“When they saw people grabbing onto the planes and fleeing for their lives, I think that really struck a chord with a lot of people,” he said.

The nonprofit also hears from employers eager for workers, Hershberger said.

One of them is Jordan Loewen, whose Columbia-based company cleans facilities or fleets like big garbage trucks. It’s “dirty, hard work,” he said.

During the pandemic when it was tough to find workers, someone suggested he hire refugees. Loewen gave it a shot, and now refugees account for nearly half his staff. He also recommends the resettlement program to other employers.

In addition to getting workers, he said, “It’s amazing hearing what these guys have come out of and the struggles that they’ve gone through in their life to get to this point of being in America.”

Global Refuge, one of 10 national resettlement agencies that work with local networks like the one in Columbia, is preparing for what a Trump presidency might mean for its work.

“It’s a huge cloud. We feel like we may be running up against a cliff here,” said Megan Bracy, the organization’s resettlement director.

Cross, from the State Department, said the focus is on the momentum in bringing more refugees and the nationwide support that’s followed.

“It’s also a program that we see so many Americans eager to continue,” she said.



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