PITTSFIELD — Before we get too far into the new year with impeachment and Iran, it may be helpful to focus on some good news. Lost in all the blur of divisiveness and anger was the news that the nation has not indeed lost its moral conscious. Case in point: we still are willing to step up and help resettle refugees in our communities.
On September 26, President Trump signed an executive order to give states and local governments the opportunity to opt out of refugee resettlement. The move was widely seen as an attempt to lower refugee admissions, based on the assumption that many states and cities would reject hosting refugees in their borders. States and local governments were given 90 days to express their preference, with the deadline expiring on January 21.
Here's where the good news comes in. The latest count has 42 governors from across the nation submitting letters of consent to continue receiving refugees. So far, only Texas has asked to be removed from the program. Of those 42, at least a third are Republicans, ranging from Charlie Baker in Massachusetts to governors in deeply red states like Asa Hutchison in Arkansas, Mike Parson in Missouri and Brad Little in Idaho. The number of city and county executives also agreeing is approaching 100, including Northampton, Holyoke, West Springfield and Chicopee in western Massachusetts. Only Springfield has opted out, with Mayor Sarno defying a city council resolution urging him to agree to resettle refugees.
The moral case for accepting refugees is hard to argue. According to the UN, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world has reached a record of 70.8 million people, with refugees accounting for just under 30 million of that total. The UN estimates that 1.5 million of that 30 million total are in need of resettlement, but only 5% actually were resettled.
While everyone can agree that resettling such a staggering number is unrealistic, it is harder to make the case for reducing the numbers the nation can afford to resettle. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. In September, the President set a ceiling for refugee admissions as he is required by law. It's a ceiling, meaning actual resettlements are typically lower. After reports that the Administration was considering reducing the resettlement number to zero, they decided to set the ceiling at 18,000. The year before, President Trump had already placed the ceiling at the lowest level it has been since the 1980s: 30,000. In the last year of the Obama Administration in the middle of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, the ceiling was placed at 110,000, but even that high figure was still lower than levels in the 1980s when it topped 200,000.
The excuse given by the Administration was that they needed to focus attention on asylum cases at the border. Asylum seekers are handled differently than refugees, by two separate offices, each employing hundreds of people. Furthermore, this year when the number of asylum requests along the Mexican border reached a straining point, the nation was still able to admit 30,000 refugees, up from last year when we only admitted 22,200 (even though the ceiling that year had 45,000.)
Each of those 42 governors is pursuing their conscience in agreeing to resettle refugees. But, everyone knows no politician would make a decision based on moral judgements alone. These governors must have done the political calculations and determined that such a decision would not only not cost them at ballot box, but might even help them. They must be reading their own constituencies who do not want to turn their backs on the world's most vulnerable peoples.
The governors also must have weighed the economic benefits. A recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that the economic impact of refugees over a ten-year period brought in $63 billion more revenue to governments than they cost. At a time when U.S. population growth fell to its lowest since 1918 (as a result of war and flu then), governors and local officials see the need for more people, especially when they learn that refugees are employed at a higher rate than the national average.
That leads us home to Berkshire County and Pittsfield. Mayor Linda Tyer recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noting Pittsfield's willingness to resettle refugees. Fresh in her memory must have been that Pittsfield had been approved as a site to host refugee families in 2016. Social service organizations were making the necessary preparations when President Trump sharply reduced the numbers to be admitted, and plans were scrapped. With her recent letter, Mayor Tyer has joined the growing list of states and localities around the country who want to step up and share the responsibility for caring for the world's most vulnerable group.
John Dickson is a retired U.S. diplomat and member of the Peace Corps Community for Refugees.