Padilla Chairs Hearing Highlighting Need to Bolster Historically Bipartisan U.S. Refugee Admissions Program
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, convened a hearing entitled “Living Up to America’s Promise: The Need to Bolster the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.”
The hearing examined the current status of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the refugee vetting process, the contributions refugees and former refugees make to our economy and our communities, and innovations in refugee processing and resettlement. After the Trump administration severely cut refugee admissions, it is taking years to bring admission numbers back up to levels the program enjoyed for almost four decades. While the Biden administration has made efforts to rebuild and scale the refugee program back up, Trump-era cuts and COVID processing challenges have significantly delayed a return to typical annual admissions levels.
During the hearing, Senator Padilla heard from Dauda Sesay, founding member and President of the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants; William (Bill) Canny, Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and BG Christopher M. Burns, U.S. Army (Ret.).
Padilla began his questioning by asking Mr. Canny to lay out the differences between asylees, refugees, and parolees. Mr. Canny explained that refugees have been determined to have refugee status by the U.N. and go through a robust application process outside the United States, asylees make their lawful case for asylum inside the U.S, and parolees are granted protection, but are only allowed into the U.S. for a temporary period of time. Canny also touched on staffing shortages and the general lack of resources as some of the biggest challenges the Biden administration has faced in rebuilding the refugee program after the Trump administration’s depletion of the program.
During a second round of questioning, Padilla directed his questioning to Mr. Sesay and asked him to speak about his experience of nearly 10 years in a refugee camp. Mr. Sesay described the squalid, crowded, and overall poor living conditions in the refugee camp and linked these experiences to the reason that so many people are eager to get to the United States. When asked about what barriers the federal government should be working to address, Sesay cited communication barriers, language training, as well as affordable housing, and childcare availability. He also urged Congress to increase the number of refugees allowed into the country and made a push for equitable pathways for protections for refugees who will one day contribute back to our country.
In a final exchange, Padilla and Mr. Canny discussed how refugees are employed and how resettlement agencies help them get settled in the country. Padilla closed the committee hearing by calling on lawmakers to work together in the historically bipartisan spirit of the refugee program to uphold our moral duty to help those fleeing their homeland looking for safety.
Senator Padilla is a strong advocate and leader for immigration reform. As Chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Padilla has now led six hearings to highlight the urgency of taking action to fix our outdated and broken immigration system. Padilla is an original cosponsor of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, legislation to overhaul the American immigration system, restore fairness and humanity to the system, strengthen families, boost our economy, and open a pathway to citizenship for millions. He also introduced the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers and the bipartisan America’s Children Act to provide a pathway to citizenship for ‘Documented Dreamers,’ children of long-term visa holders who have been waiting for years, and often decades, for a green card.
Additional information on the hearing is available here.
Full transcript of Padilla’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, can be found below:
Welcome to the first hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety of the 118th Congress.
Today, we’re gathered to discuss the historic successes of America’s Refugee Admissions Program and what needs to be done to bolster the program.
I want to thank all of our witnesses for being here today and for sharing your stories and your work.
I also want to thank Chairman Durbin, as well as Ranking Member Cornyn and all of the committee staff who behind the scenes have worked hard to make this happen.
Since the founding of our nation, America has been a beacon of light for immigrants with dreams of economic opportunity, of religious and political freedom, and of a home free from violence and conflict.
Since that time, the view of America as a refuge for immigrants has been embraced across party lines.
You can open up America’s story book to find a Democratic President-elect Kennedy or a Republican President Reagan invoking the same quote of Puritans setting out for New England, describing America as a “city upon a hill.”
And here in the Senate, you can find countless examples of Senators from both sides of the aisle coming together to defend refugees.
As recently as 2019, nine Republican Senators joined with nine Democrats to write to the Trump administration opposing the potential elimination of refugee resettlements in America.
That’s just one example of many we’ll hear about today that shows Americans from every background vocalizing their support for refugees.
They do so because the belief in America as a welcoming nation for immigrants is tied to our belief in the American Dream—where immigrants with dreams for a better future can work hard enough and dream big enough to make it here.
And while we have never fully lived up to that idea, one area where we’re had remarkable bipartisan cooperation over the last half century is in our commitment to resettling refugees.
The modern U.S. refugee program began with the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Refugee Act of 1980, which together established a permanent basis for refugees to be resettled each year.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. never fell below 61,000—and peaked at 207,000.
In more recent years, that number has hovered between 56,000 and 85,000.
That all took a dark turn when President Trump entered office.
With a clear intention to cut down on migrants entering the United States, President Trump tried to shut off all points of entry.
That included aggressively reducing refugee admissions, slashing the total number admitted down to around 22,500, 30,000, and finally just under 12,000 in his final three years in office.
Because of these dramatic cuts, 134 resettlement offices had to shut down throughout the country, without enough refugees being processed to justify the cost of staff and office space.
During that time, conditions didn’t get any easier for millions of refugees fleeing persecution.
The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges in processing refugees, as in-person screenings were delayed and increased demand for flights made refugee travel more difficult.
While the Biden administration has made efforts to rebuild and scale the refugee program back up, Trump-era cuts and the culmination of COVID processing challenges have made it difficult to return to typical annual admissions numbers.
But today, according to UNHCR, there are more refugees than at any point in history—and the political situations in Afghanistan and Ukraine have only made that population grow.
In the coming years, we know that climate change will only lead to more displacement.
So, we have a moral responsibility to step up.
While the process by which the Biden administration has expedited processing for Ukrainians and Afghans has differed from the typical Refugee Admissions Process, it’s my hope that the urgency demonstrated over the last year and a half might provide an example to follow as we search for solutions.
It’s important that we get this right—not just because so many people are counting on us, but because we also know the enormous value that refugees bring to America.
These are families, neighbors, co-workers, and critical parts of communities.
They’re also a critical part of our economy.
As a whole, the spending power of all refugees and former refugees living in the United States amounts to 73 billion dollars.
Combined in federal, state, and local taxes they pay 26 billion dollars.
They often fill critical workforce gaps—working on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic in health care and food supply chain industries.
They’ve become so integral to our community that, frankly, you don’t have to look far to find a refugee who serves as the cornerstone of their community.
People like Basma Alawee, a refugee who fled Iraq and became a math and science teacher teaching at a middle school in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
Or look at Emma Yaaka, a Ugandan refugee who works in the health care field, and has dedicated himself to advocating for equal medical services for refugees.
And just last week, a former refugee won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Ke Huy Quan’s family fled Vietnam on a boat after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, and he spent a year in a refugee camp in Hong Kong before being admitted to the U.S.
On the biggest stage, accepting his Oscar he said of his journey: “This is the American Dream.”
Today, this committee is tasked with answering the question: how can we keep that Dream alive for more Americans.
But in our discussion today, let me be clear: we are discussing refugees and the refugee resettlement process only.
There’s no need to muddle this good faith discussion with arguments over a different lawful path to the U.S., our asylum process, or debates over our southern border.
Today, our witnesses are here to discuss the refugee admission process—wherein refugees who have fled their home country for fear of persecution apply for admission to the U.S. and are thoroughly vetted outside of the U.S. before they can ever enter our country.
In fact, as we’ll discuss today, refugees are one of the most thoroughly vetted groups—having to fill out multiple forms, go through interviews, pass numerous agency database vetting processes, and go through medical screenings before they can ever step foot on U.S. soil.
So today’s discussion will be about shoring up one of the lawful pathways to come to the U.S. through the Refugee Admissions Process.
I’m interested to hear the experiences of all three witnesses here today, and it’s my sincere hope that we can come together to get our refugee admissions process back to a standard that reflects our values.