Open the Door Wider for Refugees

Of the many titles I hold—congresswoman, mother, sister, organizer—one represents a part of my identity that I hold particularly close to my heart: refugee.

People frequently come up to me and share their own refugee stories. We immediately ask each other how long it has been since arriving in the United States. In my case, it’s been 29 years since my family and I were given a golden ticket to start a new life in America as refugees.

We escaped war in Somalia and found refuge at the Utange camp in Kenya. During my four years living in a refugee camp with little food or water, I saw the best and worst of humanity. I witnessed the joy of a mother welcoming a baby safely into the world, despite the odds stacked against her. I witnessed the death of friends and family members in a camp where malaria, dysentery, and respiratory diseases were rampant. I am grateful that I made it out alive. But I would not be here without the generosity of the Kenyan people, the resolute efforts of UN workers, the help of resettlement organizations such as Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the welcoming spirit of the American people who gave me and my family a second chance at life.

Right now, the world is facing an unprecedented displacement crisis, as conflicts and catastrophes in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia displace tens of millions of people from their homes. I’m here today only because of the kindness of strangers who fought to open the door for those fleeing unthinkable circumstances. And that’s why today, as we observe World Refugee Day, I am calling on President Biden to raise the refugee admissions cap, and allow more to enter the United States.

Not long after taking office, the president raised the admissions cap to 125,000, an important step in the right direction. But that number is still too small. Even worse, we have routinely failed to meet the cap. President Biden has called the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program “a statement about who we are, and who we want to be.” I want us to be a country that lives up to our values of opening our arms during times of global catastrophe—both by raising the cap, and by ensuring that we actually admit the number of refugees it authorizes.

The horrific civil war in Sudan has displaced an estimated 10 million people, including almost 2 million who have fled to neighboring countries. Many of them have sought refuge in Ethiopia, which itself still has more than 1 million people forcibly displaced by the conflict and atrocities in Tigray. More than 1 million Rohingya are living in Bangladesh within a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar that has become a hotbed for forced recruitment of child soldiers and other human-rights violations. Massive numbers of people have fled wars in Syria and Ukraine, and economic and security collapses in Venezuela and Haiti. Global strife, economic uncertainty, and the climate crisis seem likely to fuel even higher levels of forced migration in the years ahead.

The systems in place, both in the U.S. and at the international level, are clearly inadequate to meet the scale of the displacement we are seeing around the world. Not only is it crucial to raise the refugee admissions cap; we also need an international treaty for migration worldwide, like the Paris Agreement on climate change, except binding on its signatories. We must create a system that is based on the human rights of migrants; that is mindful of the disparate experiences that migrant women, children, and LGBTQ people face; and that recognizes that every country on Earth has its role to play in establishing a more just, efficient, and humane way for people to exercise their freedom of movement.

As we work toward that larger goal, the United States must work to improve its own system for handling refugees. People who make the gut-wrenching decision to flee their home to escape brutal violence, as my family did, do not pause to consider whether Title 42 will impede their ability to enter the U.S. They do not check to see what amendments are going to be offered in the House of Representatives, watch a little bit of a Senate floor debate, or read through press statements from the White House. They flee because they have to. They come to our borders because they have no other option. There is no level of cruelty and no number of condescending warnings placed on billboards in Guatemala or anywhere else that will prevent parents from protecting their family.

The Biden administration has shown creativity and flexibility in creating parole programs for Ukrainians, Haitians, Cubans, and Venezuelans. These are not perfect solutions, but they have been successful at reducing border encounters for people from those countries, and they have demonstrated that we have the ability to welcome people in large numbers through orderly and safe processes. We should do the same for Sudanese and Ethiopians, at a minimum. But even more than that, we should work toward establishing comprehensive legal pathways that enable people to arrive in the United States without risking their life or paying human traffickers their entire savings just to be detained at the border and deported.

Fixing our immigration system is not merely a matter of basic morality, although it is that. It is also the right way to address the very real problems that are created when millions of people mass at designated ports of entry and then are either detained or sent to overstretched cities around the country. As heated as the debate over the veracity of asylum claims has become, the very fact that so many people are seeking asylum shows us that many people are trying to arrive here legally. We should give them the opportunity to do so.

And we must reject the cynicism of those who indulge in xenophobia, or promise to close immigration pathways, because they believe that those positions will prove politically advantageous. Untold numbers of people around the world are counting on us to do the right thing. I dreamed of one day living in the United States when I was huddled in a refugee camp; today millions of children are dreaming the same dream, of living in a country that promises peace and opportunity. I hope that the door that saved my life can be opened even wider.

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