Refugee Policy, Religious Freedom Are Much Bigger Than Politics

COMMENTARY: Contentious Issue of Immigration Overshadows US Policy

An American flag is shown draped over a border fence.
An American flag is shown draped over a border fence. (photo: maradon 333 / Shutterstock)

Worldwide oppression of minorities, especially persecution on the basis of religion, is one of the greatest and most morally urgent foreign-policy problems of our day. According to a recent report by World Relief and Open Doors USA, about 26 million people have fled their home countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, political opinion, national origin or membership in a particular group. 

The same report estimates that more than 10 times that many Christians, approximately 260 million, face significant persecution for their faith. 

Globally, Christians make up the overwhelming majority (about 80%) of those oppressed on account of their religion. In North Korea, Nigeria, Eritrea, much of the Middle East and South Asia and many other countries, Christians face harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and even death. Even in many countries in which governments officially recognize religious liberty, Christians suffer at the hands of Islamic extremists or other anti-Christian groups. 

Against this horrendous background, many Trump supporters, especially among evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, decry what they see as the president’s restrictive refugee policy. They contend it denies safe haven to persecuted Christians and others suffering great hardship. The criticism focuses on two areas: The Trump administration has significantly reduced the number of refugees allowed to settle in the United States. In addition, the administration recently tightened the rules governing the process of adjudicating asylum claims. 

Clearly, the issue of immigration casts a long shadow over refugee policy. It appears that the Trump administration is failing to balance the U.S. interest in offering haven to those persecuted for their faith — a desire the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and other administration officials have repeatedly expressed — with the primary objectives of its immigration policy. 

One of the main reasons President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 was because he promised to fix our broken immigration system. For Trump himself and the core of Trump voters, that means not only stopping illegal immigration but also limiting legal immigration largely to those expected to be of net benefit to American society rather than those who might be perceived as competing unfairly with unskilled U.S. workers by accepting scarce jobs for lower wages. 

To date, the mandate to limit immigration has won out over refugee policy. Since President Trump took office, the rate of Christian refugee admission has dropped by one-half. Admission of Muslim refugees and those of other faiths has declined even further. Before Trump, up to 95,000 refugees per year could settle in the United States under the Refugee Resettlement Program. Trump decreased that number to 30,000; and then, in November 2019, to 18,000. 

As mentioned earlier, evangelical Protestant and Catholic Trump supporters also fear that recent rule-tightening will make it even harder for religious asylum seekers to find refuge in the U.S. That fear is understandable, but this question is more complex than it might seem at first glance. 

The process of adjudicating claims to refugee status — necessary to safeguard national security and to achieve justice — is exceedingly complex, cumbersome and resource-intensive. Many if not most cases must be decided based on incomplete, often self-contradictory information that is not independently verifiable. To name one of the questions at stake, what constitutes a “credible fear” of persecution or a “reasonable possibility of persecution” that an applicant must demonstrate in order to be granted asylum? There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Another concern is that the new rules rely heavily on the discretion of the U.S. officials who adjudicate asylum claims. Arbitrary or incorrect findings that force people to return to hostile environments cannot be ruled out. It is impossible to apply any sort of “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in adjudicating asylum claims. A significant amount of reliance on adjudicator discretion is unavoidable. This complex reality renders it impossible to achieve the level of due process that we demand in the U.S. court system. 

Acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli has argued that the rule changes are necessary in order to keep the system workable and provide urgently needed relief to legitimate asylum seekers: 

“Our immigration system is in crisis. Illegal aliens are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which ... delays relief for legitimate asylum seekers in need of humanitarian protection. ... These proposed reforms are designed to restore integrity to the asylum system and lessen the incentive to file an asylum application for the primary purpose of obtaining work authorization.” 

Unavoidably, refugee and asylum policy is about weighing competing priorities and overcoming logistical difficulties amid resource constraints. When the real lives of real people who are in desperate need hang in the balance, the very idea of setting priorities causes moral discomfort. But we have no alternative. Will these rule changes result in a better functioning asylum system that reduces fraud and provides justice to people in need? That is the basis upon which the new rules must be measured, and the Trump administration should be held accountable. 

Through it all, we must not forget that U.S. refugee policy, as important as it is, is not the primary problem. The heart of the matter is religious persecution itself. And here the question is: What is the U.S. doing to reduce religious persecution worldwide? 

President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have made religious freedom an explicit foreign-policy priority of the United States. Wisely, the administration recognizes religious freedom as a national security issue. Trump appointed former Kansas senator and governor Sam Brownback, a man of immense stature and influence, as his ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Near the top among the Trump administration’s declared motivations for the near-defeat of the Islamic State group was to stop its genocidal violence against Christians, Yazidis and other religious communities. 

The Trump administration has directed USAID development funding to vulnerable religious minorities affected by ISIS. Pompeo is working to build an international coalition for religious freedom. In 2018 and 2019, he hosted major conferences that brought leaders from around the world together to advance religious freedom. 

Despite this, the messy reality is that politics is about accepting trade-offs, and the U.S. refugee policy deserves more attention. It is morally incumbent upon the Trump administration to raise the refugee-resettlement ceiling back to the pre-Trump level of 95,000 at the very least, as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and others have urged. The new asylum rules deserve more attention, too, so they truly lead to a better asylum process that provides relief to those in need. If they do not, refugee advocates should push for more effective rules. The Trump administration has made significant strides toward advancing religious freedom globally, and still there is more work to be done. Aside from advocating for action and policy that aids vulnerable religious communities throughout the world, Christians must continue to pray for religious freedom throughout the world. 

Todd Huizinga is the senior fellow, Europe, for the Religious Freedom Institute. He is the author of The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe (New York: Encounter Books). All opinions and perspectives in this article are attributable to the author alone.


Appearing in the Oct. 25 print edition, the Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty. Find coverage here:

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