The ability to persuade is the most powerful weapon at a U.S. senator’s disposal. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) used that power at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 22, 2023, to encourage the executive branch and the U.S. Congress to revitalize America’s refugee program.
“Since the founding of our nation, the United States has been seen as a beacon of light for people around the world—people with dreams of economic opportunity of religious and political freedom, and of a home free from violence and conflict,” said Sen. Padilla, chair of the Senate Judiciary Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety Subcommittee, in an opening statement. “And over generations, the view of America as a refuge for immigrants has been embraced across party lines.”
Sen. Padilla cited a 2019 letter in which 18 senators—nine Republicans and nine Democrats—urged the Trump administration to maintain a viable refugee program. Donald Trump and his chief adviser Stephen Miller often vilified refugees and pushed admissions to historically low levels.
The 86% decline in refugee arrivals between FY 2016 and FY 2020 due to the Trump administration’s policies resulted in approximately 295,000 refugees “missing” from the U.S. population. “These missing refugees [have] cost the overall U.S. economy over $9.1 billion each year ($30,962 per missing refugee per year, on average) and cost public coffers at all levels of government over $2.0 billion each year ($6,844 per missing refugee per year, on average),” according to research by George Mason University economics professor Michael Clemens.
Sen. Padilla noted, “Because of these dramatic cuts, 134 resettlement offices throughout the country were shut without enough refugees being processed to justify the cost of staff in offices.” That has contributed to the challenge of resettling more refugees. The Biden administration resettled fewer than 26,000 refugees in FY 2022, nearly 100,000 below the 125,000-refugee ceiling it established. The refugee ceiling is the same for FY 2023.
As of February 28, 2023, after five months of the fiscal year, only 12,307 refugees have been admitted to the United States, according to the Refugee Processing Center. The Biden administration has also accepted individuals via parole programs, including Ukrainians, Afghans and, more recently, Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans.
Addressing security arguments sometimes made against refugees, Sen. Padilla said, “Refugees are one of the most thoroughly vetted groups, having to fill out multiple forms, go through numerous interviews, and pass numerous agency vetting processes, and even go through medical screenings before they can step foot on U.S. soil.”
National security experts agree with Sen. Padilla. “It is in America’s national security, foreign policy and economic interests to welcome refugees and it can be done without harming national security,” according to Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, in a 2022 report for the National Foundation for American Policy. “Over the last two decades, security and law enforcement professionals at all levels have worked to establish, improve and utilize robust security and vetting procedures for individuals admitted as refugees to the United States. These policies and procedures have been reviewed, enhanced and strengthened repeatedly.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said he was proud of America’s commitment to offering a place of refuge for people fleeing persecution. However, he argued that because of its relatively low numbers, the refugee admissions program could not solve the situation at the Southern border. Sen. Cornyn and the Republican witness, Brigadier General Christopher M. Burns, U.S. Army (Ret.), contrasted the more extensive security screening process for refugees with that undergone by individuals who enter the United States at the Southwest border and apply for asylum. Sen. Cornyn sees the refugee program as a “poor vehicle” for terrorist groups and said, “I don’t believe the refugee resettlement program represents a substantial safety risk.”
In moving testimony, Dauda Sesay, a refugee to America from Sierra Leone, described what happened to him, his family and his country. “In the early 1990s, my home country, Sierra Leone, was violently attacked in one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, resulting in over 70,000 people killed and almost 2.5 million displaced. This is a nation that had a population of about 4.5 million at the time. That war was characterized by widespread atrocities.”
Sesay told what happened to him as a teenager in his hometown. “On that day, after school, I remember playing with my friends outside my father’s work complex, waiting for our parents, when armed rebels attacked,” he said. “There were gunshots everywhere, and armed men stormed the complex, captured nine of us, and placed us in line for our hands to be chopped off using the slogan ‘do you want a long sleeve or short sleeve?’
“In unspeakable horror, I watched five of my childhood friends’ hands get amputated, a portion of my hand was almost cut off, and I got shot in my left leg. My father came out pleading for our release, but sadly and painfully, he was killed before me. My father—a true hero—died in front of me as he gave his precious life to protect us and what was left of our community.
“When I later regained consciousness in an internally displaced camp, I learned that my family’s house was set on fire with my mom, siblings and other relatives inside. My mum survived the horror, but horrifically, my 7-year-old baby sister was burned alive—a sad and painful fact I learned decades later when I reconnected with my mom in 2014.”
Sesay testified, “Like many refugees, I would have preferred to remain in my homeland. However, due to the constant fear of persecution, the brutal war that took away my loved ones, and the direct target to my family because of my father’s traditional title, I had no other choice but to flee.”
After ten years of living in a refugee camp, Sesay was admitted to the United States. In America, he went to college, worked at Dow Chemical and has become the national network director of African Communities Together and the founder of the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants. “Because the U.S. allowed us to rebuild our lives, we take every opportunity to give back to the U.S.,” providing food and household goods to over 300 local families in Louisiana during Hurricanes Ida and Isaac.
William Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also testified. He recommended improvements in the U.S. refugee admissions program.
First, he encouraged Congress “to exercise its oversight responsibility throughout the remainder of this fiscal year, pressing the Administration to continue to find ways to better leverage technology, streamline processing, and reduce inefficiencies in the vetting process.”
Second, he advocated legislative reforms to expand relief for displaced persons and to reject efforts to restrict access to asylum.
Third, he asked Congress to “provide needed funding for processing, integration, and foreign assistance: To maintain recent progress in rebuilding our nation’s resettlement capacity, especially in response to Operation Allies Welcome and Uniting for Ukraine, and to further these gains, Congress must continue to make adequate investments in USRAP [U.S. Refugee Admissions Program].”
Fourth, Canny recommended using refugee admissions when possible rather than temporary protection, such as parole. He encouraged more refugee admissions from Latin America and said if humanitarian parole is used, Congress should provide “a realistic pathway to permanent legal status.”
Fifth, he asked Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, arguing Afghans resettled in the United States deserve safety and permanent residence.
Canny said staffing issues at the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have slowed the refugee process. He also noted emergency efforts to help Afghans consumed USCIS staff. He recommended placing a refugee processing center in Pakistan to help Afghans in that country who need a durable solution.
Several other senators attended the hearing to voice their support for refugee admissions, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT). Sen. Klobuchar urged the Senate to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Sen. Padilla repeatedly emphasized the extensive vetting process for refugees, including by providing a chart with the many steps in the process. He said the debate is not about security, but about welcoming those in need.
“What we heard today should be a hopeful reminder of the opportunity that the United States of America still represents to millions around the globe,” said Sen. Padilla in closing remarks. “But it should also be an urgent call to action. Because for all that our nation represents, we are at risk of falling short of our ideals.”