Broken by Trump, US refugee program aims to return stronger

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Syrian refugee Mahmoud Mansour, 47, helps his youngest daughter Sahar, 8, with her homework at his rented apartment in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden has vowed to restore America's place as a world leader in offering sanctuary to the oppressed by raising the cap on the number of refugees allowed in each year. Mansour's family had completed the work to go to the United States when the Trump administration issued its travel ban barring people from Syria indefinitely and suspending the refugee program for 120 days. (AP Photo/Omar Akour)

Krish Vignarajah has been in survival mode for four years as the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions by 85%. She's had to close a third of her resettlement agency's 48 offices and lay off more than 120 employees, some with decades of experience.

Now, she's scrambling to not only rehire staff but double the capacity of her Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an expansion not seen since the agency scaled up for the wave of refugees that arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

All nine U.S. resettlement agencies are experiencing the whiplash. They're gearing up to handle 125,000 refugees this year and possibly more after that if President Joe Biden makes good on his promise to restore the number of people able to create new lives in America after fleeing persecution or war.

Agencies say they welcome the challenge after being pushed to the brink. But the last four years illustrates the need to make the 41-year-old program that's long enjoyed bipartisan support less vulnerable to political whims if America is to regain its position as a leader in providing sanctuary for the world’s oppressed.

“We’ve seen how the sole concentration of refugee policy in the White House can wreak such destruction in the wrong hands,” Vignarajah said.

The Trump administration created so many obstacles that there are doubts whether the pipeline can rebound quickly enough to meet Biden’s expected target this year, especially during a coronavirus pandemic that has restricted the ability to safely interview refugees in camps and crowded cities.

“The foundation of the system has been so broken that to even get to 125,000 next year, there’s a big question mark,” said Jennifer Foy, vice president of U.S. programs with World Relief, a resettlement agency.

Refugee admissions are determined by the president each year, and federal funding for resettlement agencies is based on the number of people they resettle in a given year.