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© US National Archives. Cuban Refugees.

interviews

On Refugee Resettlement

by Matthew Soerens
August 26, 2021

This interview with Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization and Advocacy for World Relief and the national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Does your work change as patterns of migration change? Does your work shift from the Southern border to Afghanistan for example?

It certainly does. In both roles, I work with faith-based constituencies on immigration advocacy. So the values and the principles that guide our work don't change — those are rooted in our understanding of the Bible — but of course, those are applied to what is happening in immigration policy.

My whole day has been consumed by the dynamics in Afghanistan and whether the U.S. is going to evacuate those who served alongside U.S. forces as translators. And before the dynamics changed so dramatically in Afghanistan, most of my conversations were about the DREAM Act, and what the solution is for Dreamers who have been in the United States for, in most cases, 15 or 20 years. The day-to-day elements of my work tend to be dictated by what's happening in the news, which is obviously directly affected by changes or proposed changes to immigration policy.

What are those conversations like? Are they prescriptive — do you layout what policy should be implemented? Or is it about logistics — what to do when communities are receiving people?

It's a little bit of both. World Relief is one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies. For example, we have been actively preparing for months to receive what we anticipated would be a significantly higher number of arrivals from Afghanistan. That includes the logistics of finding housing, finding teams to help welcome people into communities, and raising private resources to augment the resources we get from the federal government for that process. 

In terms of policy, of course, we don't get to ultimately decide who comes into the U.S. Those are policy decisions that were made largely by the president and the administration. We were grateful that the Obama administration did what they could back in 2012 with DACA, but it's clearly inadequate. We need Congress to act in order to provide a permanent solution so that Dreamers can get permanent legal status. 

So I would say my work is a mix of speaking to the government, particularly Congress, and to congregations, particularly local churches. In both cases, it is about laying out the reasons why we, as Christians, think it’s so important to welcome immigrants. Last week I was in Montana speaking to a bunch of pastors and church leaders. This week I'm helping draft letters to the president related to the Afghanistan situation. 

Do you have a sense of how people are interpreting what's happening with Afghanistan right now?

Yeah, that's a great question. I've not seen a poll on this, but anecdotally, we are seeing tons of concern and shock at the images that are coming out of Afghanistan. I think people are surprised that the administration hasn't apparently thought this through more carefully. We have known that the U.S. armed forces were going to be leaving Afghanistan for several months. 

And if we are going to be leaving, it was pretty obvious that that would make it a much more dangerous situation for people who had served alongside the military. We've been saying for months that they ought to be evacuated to Guam if they can't be approved to be brought immediately to the United States. We respect the importance of processing and vetting, but you need to get these people out of there safely.

We were open to other ideas, but leaving them there, which is what's mostly happened thus far, is turning into a disaster. We are not giving up hope that the U.S. government will figure out a way to get people out, but it's becoming increasingly difficult.

Anecdotally, where do most of the refugees you work with end up? And what work do you do to prepare those communities? 

Absolutely. There are nine national resettlement agencies, and World Relief is just one of those. Each of those agencies has local offices or affiliates in different parts of the United States. World Relief has 16 offices around the U.S. The number's gone down in the last few years with the decline of the Refugee Resettlement Program under the previous administration. 

When people register as refugees or are approved for a special immigrant visa, which is very similar to refugees, but technically a different process, they are asked if there is a particular place they want to go where they might have a tie to someone. That happens all the time. Bhutanese refugees for whatever reason tend to want to go to Akron, Ohio. Somalis tend to want to go to Minneapolis, Minnesota. A significant share of the Afghans that we've received in the last five years have gone to Sacramento, California. That's where people have either a relative or maybe a close friend from the country of origin. We do our best to honor those requests wherever we can. That is not to say all Afghans will end up in Sacramento, but certain communities tend to draw people from particular countries of origin.

We spoke to somebody a couple of weeks ago who really focused on things like post entry care, what happens to migrants, what support does the government offer, and, in turn, how migrants feel about the government. How do you approach community work in a practical sense? What do you focus on and how do you feel those communities are responding? 

I would say in general, the most pro-migrant, pro-refugee attitudes that we encounter are the communities that receive significant numbers of refugees and immigrants. That is basic contact theory.

When people know migrants personally, rather than just the scary stories that might show up on certain cable TV channels or on social media, people tend to have much more favorable views towards refugees or immigrants in general.

That said, a big part of our work is building welcoming communities. We focus not only on the individuals who are arriving but on the receiving community, the American citizen residents. We are looking for opportunities to help address misconceptions. And we can all think of some of the misconceptions that are quite widespread, whether it's around refugee resettlement or immigrants in general.

We help to provide accurate information, present stories, whenever we can, and encourage first-person interactions when people can share their own stories. For faith communities, it is about drawing people back to their Christian beliefs. A lot of our work is leading Bible studies and pointing people to look more deeply at their own faith and how it might inform how they would respond. You know, some people will be moved by personal stories. For some, a moment in reading the Bible really captures their attention. For some, it is about getting a particular concern addressed with factual information. And often that is about how this isn't the economic issue that they have been led to believe it is. 

How do you find success politically if immigration is not the most important issue to someone? There are some obvious other categories that seem like higher priority single issues than immigration to the particular group you work with.

We are careful to never say that immigration is the only policy issue that matters. We realize that there is a whole range of issues that matter that stem from root convictions. What we will say is regardless of who you vote for, we need to hold our elected officials accountable for pursuing policies that are just and compassionate. Elected officials are often more concerned about losing people who voted for them than they are about losing the votes they never expected to receive anyway. 

For example, we do work with a lot of white evangelical Christians, and it is not a surprise to people that they vote primarily for Republicans. When President Trump, early in his administration, announced that they were stopping the Refugee Resettlement Program, we organized as quickly as we could and sent out an opposition statement with some really prominent evangelical leaders. In some ways it shouldn't matter whether it's a Republican or Democratic president, we think that there's a level of principle that ought to be guiding our response that is more important than partisanship. 

A lot of people we've spoken to think comprehensive immigration reform is beyond us. There is no political will. How do you feel about that?

I certainly hear that critique and I'm not naive to think that comprehensive immigration reform would be easy. To be really clear, if they pass pieces of reform, that would be positive. We have been on the record in support of the Dream Act or something similar for farmworkers. 

But, I don't think that either the Biden administration or Congress should give up too quickly on providing solutions to the broad range of systemic problems in our immigration laws. That includes addressing an earned legalization of some sort, far beyond just for Dreamers and some essential workers. It goes to addressing the future flow of migration to the United States, recognizing that the reason we often tend to have people unlawfully in the country is that they didn't qualify for a visa in the first place, even though there often is a job waiting for them if they managed to get here. It goes to the fact that we've got to have secure borders. That doesn't mean a closed border, but we ought to know who's coming into the country and do everything reasonably possible to keep out those who would seek to do harm.

That is the basic framework that president Bush supported in terms of comprehensive immigration reform. Obama supported a bill along those lines. It got through the US Senate with 68 votes in 2013, but the House of Representatives refused to bring it to a floor vote. It probably would have passed if it had come to the floor. Given the current control of Congress, I think there ought to be a good faith effort to pass something similar. I think we give up too quickly on the idea that this whole situation needs a solution. We were supportive of President Biden's initial US Citizenship Act of 2021 as a proposal. We think that's a positive first step. I'm concerned that it was only a first step. It didn't go anywhere beyond that, in part, because it wasn't quite as comprehensive as past efforts. 

What we found with our constituencies — and I suspect this is true for a lot of Americans —  is that amnesty means that there's a violation of an immigration law somewhere, but there is no real consequence to that. It's hard to get majority support for that. That doesn't mean that people want all migrants deported, that means that they want there to be some sort of appropriate penalty, which could be a fine. That was part of the 2013 bill. It's part of the 2006 bill that passed the US Senate as well.  

In our work, we've described that as a restitution-based immigration reform. Any good faith comprehensive immigration reform would say, there was a violation of law, we're acknowledging that with an appropriate penalty that demonstrates that the law matters, but it is not compassionate to break up immigrant families, nor is it in the economic interests of the United States to enact mass deportation, which is basically what it would mean to fully enforce all of our existing laws.

I think that there's a lot more support for that then than people might presume. But, sometimes I fear the conversation starts from polls and there's no coming together to say what can get both Democratic and Republican support in the U.S. Senate. Maybe I am naive to think that that's still possible, but it did just happen on infrastructure. There are some issues where it might be possible to forge that consensus. That is going to require will, and some give and take from both sides. 

On the sort of side of the house and the Senate – who do you feel like is leading the movement? Who do we look at? Who do we put pressure on? Who has political and cultural capital to do something?

Yeah, that's a great question. Both on the Republican and the Democratic sides, I would look at some of the people who have led the way in forging some bipartisan consensus on other issues like the infrastructure bill. I also think frankly, the President has a really important role. He is the convener who knows the U.S. Senate better than anybody from his many decades of service there who has good relationships on both sides of the aisle. We would love to see the President convene those conversations and say, where can we find consensus that could actually get the 60 votes necessary to pass. And, hopefully, get a lot more. 

In 2013, more than two-thirds of the U.S. Senators were willing to support that legislation, and right now Democrats have control. Of course, there is still the filibuster. I would be happy for positive legislation to happen through whatever process. However, I'd much prefer it to be more comprehensive and go through a process that actually had broad bipartisan support. 

And I think that's important also for the receiving community. Just because a bill passes into law, doesn't mean that everyone in America celebrates it and embraces the people directly affected by the law. I think that embrace is much more likely if they are able to earn legal status through a process that has the support of people on both sides of the political divide. 

Even when there does seem to be support, there are these larger moments that really kill empathy for this issue. Bush campaigned on immigration reform. He won, what, 40% of the Latino vote? Vincente Fox is at the White House and it's great. And then 9/11 happens. That obviously is an extreme example – but COVID too has had a similar effect.  It is an issue that can be pointed to as a security concern, a public health concern, an economic concern, on and on and on.

I agree with your assessment and unfortunately, we've certainly seen that around COVID. And to a certain extent, it's understandable. 

I mean, a year and a half ago when the world was shutting down, I think people felt like, wait, why do we need to prioritize letting other people in the United States right now when the whole world is locked down? Now, we're in a very different spot. We have vaccines available that are largely effective. Testing is no longer an issue. Refugees can be tested just before they get on a plane. 

The flip side of the COVID dynamic is that there's been a lot of focus on essential workers and just how many of those people are actually immigrants and to what extent we relied on people to continue to have our food supply.

A lot of Americans had the unique realization that somebody still was out in the fields picking produce while the rest of us were sitting in our houses doing zoom meetings.

Frankly, I think that's part of why, if we see positive legislation in the near term, it most likely will be something around farmworkers. Part of our job as advocates for immigrants is to help make those connections and to help people realize that sometimes these issues are more complicated than the surface level of concerns that people may have. 

Sure, but then there’s Title 42. I think that that was a moment of manipulation in order to expel people – and Biden has kept it in place. 

We have been very critical of Title 42, both when it was started by President Trump and when it was continued under President Biden. And, in some ways, the case of Title 42 was even weaker under President Biden. 

I mean, it's really hard to pretend that this is really primarily about public health instead of about managing the number of asylum requests. It is very clear that it was being used to send people, to send children, back to human traffickers. That's not acceptable. We need to find a way to both respect laws that protect unaccompanied children and that do our best to mitigate public health risks. In April of 2020, we made a statement saying that we cannot do this. Particularly for asylum seekers, the case for using Title 42 is only growing weaker. The further we get into this pandemic, as we have vaccines and the widespread availability of testing, the rationale gets weaker. No epidemiologists think that COVID spread is being caused by the relatively small number of migrants. 

That's not to say we shouldn't have good systems in place to make sure that everyone who comes in, who might've been exposed, does not expose anyone else. But, we shouldn't sacrifice our national values of being a place of refuge for those who are fleeing persecution.