Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, celebrating the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas received news that they were free – two years after the emancipation proclamation was issued. Juneteenth, falling on June 19 and observed as a federal holiday this year on Monday, June 20, is a second Independence Day, this time including enslaved people who were excluded from the July 4 Declaration of Independence.
World Refugee Day was proclaimed by the United Nations on June 20, 2021, the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. World Refugee Day is observed every year to celebrate and honor refugees from around the world.
With both racism and xenophobia running rampant in the United States right now, the connections between the two observances seem obvious to Guerline Jozef:
“’Today, as we are looking into celebrating Juneteenth, we want to take the time to honor our ancestors who paid the price for us to be here,’ Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said on a press call. …
“’Immigration is a Black issue. Immigration is a racial issue. Immigration is a social justice issue. And as a Black woman, I cannot separate my immigration status away from my Blackness,’ Jozef said.”
Last September’s viral photos of U.S. Border Patrol officers on horseback chasing Haitian asylum seekers along the Rio Grande sparked revulsion and international outrage. That outrage subsided, with little lasting effect. The United States continued to expel thousands of Haitians, with nearly 4,000 Haitians deported on 36 flights in May. This racism is not new, and is not limited to Haitians, though their treatment is a paradigmatic example of the racism embedded in the U.S. immigration system. U.S. rejection of Haitian asylum seekers dates back more than half a century.
“Haitians have sought asylum at US borders for decades, but every presidential administration since the 1970s has treated Haitians differently than other migrant groups, rejecting asylum claims, holding them longer in detention, and making it harder for them to settle down in safety. In the early 1990s, for example, when the United States detained more than 12,000 Haitian refugees at Guantanamo indefinitely, Immigration and Naturalization Services denied the vast majority of them asylum.”
Even apart from racism, overall U.S. refugee policies fail, day after day and year after year. The Trump administration gutted the entire U.S. refugee system.
“The Trump administration slashed refugee admissions, and since the funding of refugee agencies is tied to the refugee cap, agencies were forced to lay off staff and shutter offices. Canada — which has little more than a 10th of the US population — overtook America as the global leader in resettlement.”
In Fiscal Year 2021 (FY2021), the United States admitted 11,400 refugees. That fiscal year began under Trump, as fiscal years run from October 1 to September 30. Biden was inaugurated on January 20, 2021, one-third of the way through that year.
The Biden administration lifted Trump-era restrictions on refugee numbers, increasing the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 per year. Refugee admissions will come nowhere near that number. The estimated number for 2022 is less than 20,000. By way of comparison, the number of refugee admissions in 2016, the last full year of the Obama presidency, was 84,994.
That’s not entirely the fault of the Biden administration: rebuilding is a harder and longer task than tearing down. Whatever the shortcomings of his immigration policies (and they are many), Joe Biden is getting a bad rap on refugee resettlement. Official statistics measure only official refugee numbers, and most of the refugee resettlement under the Biden administration has come in emergency resettlements that bypass the usual process.
Immigration prof Austin Kocher explains:
“The Biden administration is on track to increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States from about 11,400 last year in FY 2021 to about 19,000 by the end of this fiscal year in September. This is higher than last year, but still far below resettlement numbers in the past 20 years and also far below the refugee cap that the administration set for itself. …
“One obvious caveat is that the US has taken in about 70,000 Afghans and plans to accept about 100,000 Ukrainiansunder a humanitarian program—two large groups that aren’t included in these numbers.”
Admitting Afghans and Ukrainians is only one step, and Republicans in Congress continue to block the crucial next step: giving them some kind of immigration status that will allow them to live and work securely in the United States. The hypocrisy of their refusal is monumental. As they criticized the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, they failed to credit the enormous accomplishment of the airlift. As they insist that Afghans who worked for the United States must be protected, they block the very legislation that could offer protection.
A new report from the U.N. refugee agency says the number of people displaced by war, violence, persecution, and human rights abuses is now more than 100 million. About 41 percent of these are children. Prior to the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine, about 83 percent of world refugees were hosted in low-income or middle-income countries. Turkiye, Colombia, Uganda, Pakistan, and Germany hosted the largest numbers of refugees. The United States is nowhere near the top of the list.
We can do better. On this World Refugee Day, we must commit to doing better.
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Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Explanatory Note
The official U.S. government page explains: “Refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” U.S. refugee law excludes war refugees, climate refugees, and offers only shaky, sometimes protection to refugees from gender wars.
Refugees apply from outside the United States, usually referred by UNHCR. Refugees referred to the United States for resettlement usually have lived in refugee camps for years, even decades. After they are referred to the United States for resettlement, our vetting and admission process takes additional years to complete.
Asylum seekers must meet the definition of refugee, and must already be in the United States or seek admission at a port of entry.