The world is witness to unparalleled levels of human suffering, with the numbers of displaced people exceeding even the devastation of World War II, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. More than 65 million people, or 24 per minute, are displaced by conflict and persecution. For refugees who can flee, resettlement in countries offering safe haven and a new start saves lives. Many die trying to escape war, poverty, famine, drought and oppression. The German newspaper Der Tagesspiegal recently published the names of 33,293 refugees who drowned en route to Europe from 1993 to 2017. Last year proved the deadliest on record — 5,000 migrants died or disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
But here in the U.S, the Trump administration has stopped welcoming refugees, drastically cutting the overall number allowed in and banning arrivals from certain Muslim-majority countries who lack ties to the U.S., while battling a series of court rulings blocking the country’s most restrictive travel ban, primarily impacting Muslims.
President Trump slashed the total number of refugees allowed into the U.S. for the year that started Oct. 1, imposing a limit of 45,000 — down from 110,000 — the lowest number in more than three decades, according to the Pew Research Center. Though the move resumed the refugee admission process (Trump had suspended it by executive order soon after assuming office in January), a partial ban on refugees from six majority-Muslim countries is now in effect and a complete ban could still be enacted, reducing refugee numbers even more, depending on future court rulings. The partial ban bars arrivals from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen who lack a “bona fide” relationship to family, a company or a university in the U.S. Family ties are defined as “grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.” The latest ban also bars entry by certain Venezuelan government officials and most North Koreans. Administration officials also announced that 11 unidentified countries will be subject to a 90-day review for possible threats. The 11 impacted countries remained unnamed at press time.
Advocates for refugees strongly object to the administration’s new order reducing the number admitted to the U.S. and the implementation of the partial ban. They point to the exhaustive vetting process already in place for refugee applicants, the strictest security scrutiny applied to any traveler to this country. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says that over the past 40 years, only 20 refugees out of 3.25 million resettled in the U.S. have been convicted of committing terrorist acts or attempting to do so. Just three Americans have been killed by refugees — all three by Cuban refugees in the 1970s. Americans have a 1 in 3.64 billion chance of being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack per year, according to the Cato Institute’s risk analysis. But since the U.S. established the resettlement program with the Refugee Act of 1980, there has not been a single lethal terrorist attack by a refugee among the hundreds of thousands resettled in the U.S., says Martin Zogg, executive director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s Los Angeles office based in Glendale.
Zogg has been working with persecuted asylum seekers since the early 1990s. IRC is a highly regarded global aid, relief and development nongovernmental organization rated 4 out of 4 by Charity Navigator and A+ by Charity Watch. Currently led by David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary, IRC has been responding to the world’s worst humanitarian crises since World War II, helping people flee devastation, oppression, war and religious persecution. The organization was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, himself a German refugee, who recruited 50 additional American intellectuals including philosopher John Dewey, writer John Dos Passos and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to join him in helping refugees. IRC’s humanitarian relief operations are now in more than 40 war-torn countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs are in 28 American cities.
Here in Los Angeles, about 1,459 refugees were initially resettled in 2016-17 compared to 2,250 for 2014-15, according to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). From 2000 through 2016, the agency says, 34,278 refugees had been initially resettled in L.A. County through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. (There is no way to determine how many refugees who come to L.A. still reside in the county.) Arroyo Monthly talks with Zogg about IRC’s Los Angeles refugee assistance effort:
How long have you been working with the International Rescue
Committee and specifically, IRC’s L.A. office?
I started with IRC in 1992 as a country director in its international humanitarian relief program in Bosnia as the war there began, then worked in international programs for several years. I’ve been the executive director of IRC’s office in Los Angeles for nearly six years.
Tell us about the work the International Rescue Committee does with refugees in Los Angeles.
IRC is one of just nine agencies authorized by the State Department to resettle refugees in the U.S. In Los Angeles, it’s the largest of those agencies, resettling hundreds of refugees each year. For the past 10 or so years, about 2,500 refugees have resettled here every year.
How long has IRC been working with refugees in Los Angeles?
IRC opened its office Los Angeles in 1975, even before the U.S. established its formal resettlement program [with the Refugee Act of 1980]. The first refugees IRC resettled here were from Southeast Asia following the end of the war in Vietnam.
Where do the refugees come from?
The refugee community in Los Angeles is as diverse as any in the country, with Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong; Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian; and Iranian, Salvadoran, Honduran, Iraqi and Afghani, among many nationalities. All have fled persecution, oppression, deprivation and violence, and the overwhelming majority are women, children and the elderly. As a rule, it is about 80 percent or more women, children and elderly.
What countries are refugees currently fleeing and what circumstances are driving them to leave their countries of origin?
Since 2004 the primary population of refugees resettled in the Los Angeles region is from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Syria, Honduras and Burma, with some very small number of additional refugees from Eritrea, Russia, Somalia, Cambodia and North Korea.
Why are they arriving in Los Angeles?
Iranian refugees enduring religious persecution have the opportunity to resettle here through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Most Iranian refugees are Armenian, and the large Armenian community in Southern California is supportive and welcoming.
All refugees meet the definition in the 1951 U.N. Convention: someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In some unique cases, the State Department will allow persons who’ve otherwise met the definition but remain in their country of nationality. All of the refugees resettled in Los Angeles through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, whether from Iran or another country, meet the convention’s definition.
In addition to resettling refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, we resettle Special Immigrant Visa holders from those countries, which are granted through a long process similar to the refugee-vetting process to Iraq and Afghanistan nationals who have been employed by the U.S. government and have experienced or are experiencing ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.
How does the IRC help refugees and immigrants in Los Angeles?
IRC supports newly arrived refugees by providing immediate aid, including food, housing and medical attention. It also serves as a free one-stop center for refugees’ needs during their pivotal first months in the U.S. IRC staff members and volunteers help refugees learn about American customs, secure jobs, learn English and eventually become citizens. In short, IRC provides most of the basic things refugees need to restart their lives here and helps them overcome cultural barriers so that their adjustment is as easy as possible.
Does Los Angeles have something specific to offer refugees that other cities do not?
A long history of immigration, deep respect for diversity and enormous community support.
Are there challenges to refugee resettlement particular to Los Angeles?
Many. The primary challenges are the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, but there is also a shortage of affordable ESL classes and limited public transportation. What is striking is that refugees are undeterred in the face of these challenges and establish strong foundations in their new homes despite them.
With lack of affordable housing ranking as one of L.A.’s most pressing problems, how hard is it to house refugees?
Housing is one of the greatest challenges for resettlement agencies. Fortunately, Los Angeles is a remarkably welcoming community to refugees and IRC has developed wonderful relationships with landlords and property owners across Southern California who know the reliability of refugees as tenants and support refugee resettlement.
What do refugees contribute to Los Angeles?
Aside from obviously enriching the cultural diversity of our region, refugees actually start businesses, are employed and pay taxes at rates higher than those for native-born Americans. Over just the past decade, refugees in the U.S. have contributed $63 billion more than they cost, according to a report commissioned by President Trump’s own administration.
What is the impact of President Trump’s indefinite travel ban on refugees?
The ban prevented refugees — the most vulnerable people in the world — from finding safety and showed a stunning cruelty toward those fleeing our common enemies, enemies who intend to paint the U.S. as indifferent to refugees’ suffering.
Can you describe the vetting process?
The hardest way to come to the U.S. is as a refugee. They are vetted more intensively than any other group seeking to enter the country. All refugees must first be registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which identifies those most vulnerable. The U.S. then hand-selects every person who is admitted. Security screenings are intense and led by U.S. government authorities, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and multiple security agencies. The process typically takes up to 36 months and is followed by further security checks after refugees arrive in the U.S.
Why do you think the general public appears to misunderstand the depth and complexity of the vetting process refugees go through before gaining admission to the U.S.?
Perhaps it’s simply the fear of the unknown, because once one knows the exacting details of the process, no amount of misinformation about it would be credible.
Why does a perception that refugees are more likely to commit acts of terrorism persist in some sectors of the U.S.? What percentage of refugees commit such crimes?
Zero percentage of refugees commit such crimes. Since the U.S. established the resettlement program with the Refugee Act of 1980, there has not been a single case of an act of terrorism among the hundreds of thousands of refugees resettled in the U.S. According to the Cato Institute, the chance of being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.6 billion. And according to the New American Economy research, there is no link between resettled refugees in the U.S. and crime rates. Even more telling is that over the past 10 years, in cities that received the most refugees relative to their size, crime rates have declined after refugees moved in, and nine of 10 cities on the list had property and violent crime levels decline precipitously.
Does the U.S. Diversity Visa program impact refugees?
The State Department program known as the Diversity Visa Lottery is utterly separate from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and has no effect on refugees.
How can people help refugees and immigrants in Los Angeles?
Everyone can help refugees by welcoming them as new and valuable members of American society. They can also help by volunteering at a local resettlement agency, or by donating money, furniture and household items, or by urging elected officials to support refugee resettlement, or by employing or encouraging local businesses to employ refugees.
Is there anything IRC urges concerned citizens to do to urge the administration and elected officials to support a rational refugee admission policy in the U.S.?
President Trump and his administration have actively sought to prohibit refugees from reuniting with their families. They have restricted resettlement agencies from fulfilling promises to refugees who have already been approved to come to the U.S. and left thousands of vulnerable families to question their futures. This cruel cessation of resettlement has to stop. Every day, refugees who have completed security screening continue to wait for their travel to be approved and their lives to be saved. Any further delay would be negligent and contrary to our American values as an immigrant nation.
Congress needs to know that Americans believe in refugee resettlement and that we won’t stand for further unnecessary delays in their arrival. The House Judiciary Committee has oversight of refugee admissions and needs to know Americans value refugee resettlement. Every Representative needs to know it. Call Congress today at (855) 472-8930 and say: “I am a constituent living in Southern California. I am extremely disappointed in the president’s decision to drastically reduce and delay refugee arrivals to the U.S. I am calling to urge you to tell President Trump to start letting refugees in and to stop delaying the process.”
Everyone should also share messages of solidarity on social media. Tweet “I #StandWithRefugees & @theIRC. Join me. Call (855) 472-8930 & tell @HouseJudiciary to demand refugee admissions now!”
To make a donation, visit help.rescue.org. Visit gifts.rescue.org for holiday gifts in your recipient’s name, such as a year of school for $58, four temporary shelters for $54 or a baby goat for $90. Ninety-two cents of each dollar donated go directly to help refugees and others in need.