Philly readies for new neighbors as Biden plans to resettle more of the world’s most vulnerable people

by Jeff Gammage
Published Feb 21, 2021 by The Philadelphia Inquirer

Okubamichael Gebregergish came to the US as a refugee from Eritrea in 2017. He is waiting for his wife and children to be
admitted to the US. Has not been able to get in contact with a brother and his worried about what might have happened.
He is shown here in Philadelphia on Feb. 18, 2021.CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Under Biden, more people who have waited years in difficult conditions have hope of better lives

Margaret O’Sullivan remembers frantically trying to hide the condoms.

Scott Lloyd, the Trump administration’s fiercely antiabortion director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was due any minute at the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia.

“We ran to the men’s room to grab them out, fearful he’d cut our funding,” the NSC executive director said of that 2018 visit. “That’s what it was like trying to navigate through Trump world.”

Now there’s wide hope at NSC and other agencies around the Biden administration’s plan for a robust return to welcoming some of the world’s most vulnerable people to new homes in the region.

Trump squeezed the admission of refugees to a series of record lows, down to a maximum of 15,000 a year. Biden intends to raise the cap to 125,000.

This month he issued an executive order to rebuild and enhance the program, saying it promotes stability in unsettled regions and encourages nation-to-nation cooperation amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II. It reinforces America’s long, if frayed, standing as “a beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world,” the president said.

Today, an estimated 26 million people have been forced from their homelands by war, persecution, or natural disaster, according to the United Nations. Unable to return, they depend on agencies like NSC to help them land safely, if not easily, in this and other countries.

“We are so fired up. We are so fired up,” O’Sullivan said. “We’d like Philadelphia to set the bar high in how it’s done. … We’ve got a great community, a great, welcoming community.”

In anticipation of new neighbors arriving as early as spring, NSC is assessing its staffing, reactivating volunteers, engaging corporate partners, and broadening its Amazon wish list — refugees need safety and security, but they also need sheets, towels, blankets, and kitchen utensils.

Migrants and refugees from different African nationalities wait for assistance on an overcrowded wooden boat, as aid workers
of the Spanish NGO Open Arms approach them in the Mediterranean Sea, international waters, at 122 miles off the Libyan coast
on Feb. 12, 2021. Bruno Thevenin / AP

The national resettlement program never actually stopped; it just slowed to a trickle. NSC kept going — and kept families going — even as admissions fell and the pandemic surged. Three staffers were laid off. About $500,000 was raised in donations. Foundation givers stepped forward.

The results of resettlement are life-changing. Now living in Southwest Philadelphia, Okubamichael Gebregergish said simply: “I was in danger.”

He fled from his homeland of Eritrea, a northeast African country of 3.2 million that’s controlled by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. It has no constitution, elections, or independent judiciary, and even a hint of political activism can get someone arrested, tortured, or killed. Disappearances, rape, and murder are used to instill fear and control, according to a 2016 United Nations Inquiry.

Young men are particularly at risk, facing conscription into indefinite military service and forced labor. Several hundred Eritreans have been resettled in Philadelphia during the last decade, and they’re mostly men like Gebregergish, now 38.

He fled first to Sudan, then to Libya, and then Malta, from where he was resettled, one of 1,917 Eritreans admitted to the United States in 2017 as Donald Trump slashed admissions. His wife and children remain overseas.

“I’m fine. It’s better,” said Gebregergish, who works driving for Uber. “The government, they gave me the opportunity to work, but I hope my family can be brought here.”

Okubamichael Gebregergish, who came to the US as a refugee from Eritrea in 2017, plays with snow, something he has seen
only a few times. He is waiting for his wife and children to be admitted to the US.CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

 The United States was long the world leader in resettlement, admitting more refugees each year than all other countries combined, but surrendered that standing under Trump. Now Canada leads.

Who comes to this country, and more specifically to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, depends largely on what’s happening in the world, what places are in crisis. And on who is president.

Near the end of the Obama administration, Syrians were resettled amid the country’s ruinous civil war. People also came from Bhutan and Myanmar.

In 2016 some 794 refugees were resettled in Philadelphia, the most since 2002, and Syrians ranked first at 245, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. During 14 years from 2002-16, the largest numbers were from Bhutan (1,446), Liberia (1,355), Myanmar (1,256), and Iraq (1,148), Pew said.

Under Trump, the refugee population became not just smaller, but whiter and more Christian.

President Barack Obama’s last-year cap of 110,000 refugees was cut to 50,000 in 2017, then 45,000 in 2018, to 30,000 in 2019, to 18,000 last year, and, in October, to 15,000.

Some 444 refugees were resettled in Pennsylvania in fiscal 2020, with most coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at 104, while 90 came from Ukraine, according to State Department statistics. In the following five months, 57 refugees came to Pennsylvania, led by 20 from Ukraine.

Admitted Refugees to the U.S.

Under former President Donald Trump, the annual ceiling on the number of admitted refugees fell from 85,000 to less than 20,000. President Joe Biden plans to raise the ceiling to 125,000.

The term refugee carries specific legal status: forced to flee their home countries, and rendered unable to return because of well-founded fears they could be harmed due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

If chosen for resettlement in the United States, refugees undergo extensive vetting and security checks that can take up to two years. They gain the ability to become permanent residents and, eventually, American citizens.

Officials at HIAS Pennsylvania, another big local resettlement agency, are expecting the first surge of refugees around June. Rebuilding the overseas vetting structure, which quickly eroded under Trump, will take some time, said executive director Cathryn Miller-Wilson.

“Biden has been careful to talk about the refugee program in its broader context,” she said. “His messaging has been partially to our country to say, ‘We’re back,’ but also to the world to say, ‘We’re back, and we need to collaborate because things are bad.’”

Biden wants to increase resettlement from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — they have some of the world’s highest levels of violence — along with accepting Uyghurs and Hong Kong residents who face persecution in China.

“Being the leader in refugee resettlement, which we were for so long, was an important element of U.S. soft power,” said Kathleen Newland, who studies immigration, development, and refugee protection at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “It’s what makes other countries willing to follow our lead on all kinds of issues. And it’s what leads people in other countries to develop favorable opinions of the United States.”

HIAS Pennsylvania executive director Cathryn Miller-Wilson in a 2018 portrait in the organization's office in Philadelphia.
The agency, like others, is preparing for a renewal of the nation's program to welcome refugees to these shores.TIM TAI / Staff Photographer

People like to say the United States has been a haven for refugees since the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. But the nation’s modern resettlement program is relatively new, created in 1980 when a bipartisan Congress passed the Refugee Act.

That year, amid the post-Vietnam War refugee crisis, the cap reached 231,700, and 207,000 people were admitted. That correlation between cap and arrivals generally held until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the ceiling was 70,000 but fewer than 30,000 refugees were accepted.

Americans have been divided over whether the country should accept refugees, with large splits along party lines.

In 2018, 51% said the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees, while 43% said it does not. Three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents cited a responsibility, compared with 26% of Republicans and Republican-leaners, according to the Pew Research Center.

Under Trump, resettlements at NSC fell more than 70%, from 539 people in fiscal 2016 to 143 in 2020.

“Even doing a strategic plan was difficult,” said Gretchen Shanfeld, the senior director of program operations. Biden has set a new direction, she noted, but, “How fast will this ramp up? There are a lot of unknowns.”

Still, she and others at NSC are planning for a bigger future.

“We didn’t go down,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve all learned resilience. If we didn’t already have it.”

Refugees Resettled in Pennsylvania

In fiscal 2016, before former President Donald Trump took office, 3,219 refugees were resettled in Pennsylvania. In fiscal 2020, the last full year in which data was available, only 444 refugees were resettled in the state, a decrease of 88%.