The U.S. has historically allowed the highest number of refugees to resettle across the country when compared with the rest of the world. But pro-immigration advocates like freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, say America can do more.
“Our quota should always be in reference to the number [of refugees] that is out there in the world,” Omar said in a Yahoo News interview with Zainab Salbi, host of “Through Her Eyes.” “I don’t have a particular number in mind, but I know that we have the resources and the space to welcome 80 to 100 [thousand annually].”
Omar became a refugee in 1991 when a brutal civil war devastated Somalia, a predominantly Muslim country in East Africa, and displaced her family along with over 2 million others. Five years after entering the U.S., Omar was eligible for citizenship; she became a citizen in 2000.
Under the Trump administration, the cap on admitted refugees has reached its lowest point since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. The ceiling dropped from 85,000 refugees in 2016 to 54,000 in 2017, and then 45,000 in 2018. It has been set at 30,000 for this fiscal year. According to the National Immigration Forum, the U.S. resettlement program falls behind the rapidly increasing population of refugees worldwide.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has announced a number of policies meant to impede legal immigration or asylum, including several versions of an executive order banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, the proposed ending of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for refugees from certain countries, and zero-tolerance policies at the southern border.
After the 2018 midterm elections, Omar, representing Minnesota’s Fifth District in Minneapolis, became the first-ever Somali-American in Congress and the first hijab-wearing Muslim member of the House. For Minnesotans, she said, “there’s a lot of pride.”
“In 2016,” she continued, “two days before the election, Trump came to Minnesota and used refugees in his speech as a tool to divide our community. They felt excited to now have a full response to say we don’t only welcome refugees in Minnesota, but we send them to represent us in Congress.”
The state, although making up just 2 percent of the nation’s population, is home to 13 percent of its refugees, making it the most welcoming state per capita. In recent years, however, the number of Somali refugees settling in Minnesota has declined.
Opponents of immigration say refugees and immigrants constitute a drain on resources, especially if they increasingly seek refuge in the U.S. Last September, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new, all-time low ceiling on refugees entering the U.S., he said, “The United States anticipates processing up to 310,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Fiscal Year 2019.” The 280,000 asylum seekers “will join the over 800,000 asylum seekers who are already inside the United States and who are awaiting adjudication of their claims,” he said.
To Omar, who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before resettling in the U.S. with her family, the contribution refugees make to the country far outweighs their cost.
“I don’t know if people fully understand these are people who don’t have a cent to their name who are coming into this country,” she said. “And within a year, in two years, they have paid off whatever resources it took to get them here.”
But not having a cent to their names when they come is what administration officials highlight. Immigrants have always had to prove they will not be a burden on American taxpayers, but that may not be possible when you’re escaping war or persecution. And with recently proposed changes to rules like the public charge rule, which takes into account an immigrant’s use of or likelihood to use government assistance, it’s getting harder for foreigners to enter or stay in the country.
Omar used her personal experience to make the case for refugees and immigrants. “There was eight of us when we arrived here: myself, my dad and six of my siblings,” she said. “And almost within a month of arriving, all of them were fully employed. I came at the age of 12, and within four years I had a job. And so by the time I was eligible to be a citizen, I was a taxpaying member of society at the age of 17.”
In her first House floor speech, during the government shutdown, Omar devoted her remarks to refugees and immigrants. “If the president wants to have a real conversation about border security, we are ready to have it,” she said. “We can talk about finding a solution to our broken immigration system and how to adopt policies that extend humanity and compassion to migrants and refugees.”
In one of Trump’s previous proposals to reopen the government in exchange for funding for a border wall, which in her speech Omar called “racist and cynical,” the president offered extensions of legal protection to DACA recipients, also known as “Dreamers,” and to TPS holders — but only those from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti and not from predominantly Muslim countries like Sudan, Yemen or Omar’s birth country, Somalia.
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