Bishop's View Column: Zero-refugee proposal is simply un-American

Bishop Tom Aitken.jpg
Bishop Thomas Aitken
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Along with the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, I urge us to reject the idea of a zero-refugee proposal in 2020 in this beautiful country that our white ancestors immigrated into.

The United States is the land of freedom and of welcome. Our nation’s history overflows with stories of people relocating to the United States, beginning with the first pilgrims being welcomed by the hospitality and generosity of the Wampanoag and their feast of Nikkomosachmiawene, or Grand Sachem's Council Feast.

Virtues of hospitality continue to be valued as “American,” as we have welcomed generations, including our own president’s mother, who emigrated from Scotland in the 1930s.

Our country has a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants and refugees, whether they were fleeing religious persecution or searching for a better life, with generosity and grace.

Churches, local clubs, and numerous organizations have traditionally provided invaluable funding and legal and technical assistance for resettlement as they form communities to support these newcomers. In my own territory of oversight, as a Lutheran bishop here in Northeastern Minnesota, I have personally heard and know of scores of stories of congregations, not just individuals, which have welcomed refugee families from many places in the world into their lives and their communities and gladly took steps toward helping them to get a safe start in life.


Over the past two years, we have seen the number of refugee arrivals decline to historic lows precisely when the need has never been greater There is an historic high of 25.9 million refugees worldwide. Prior to 2016, the U.S. had an average refugee resettlement ceiling of 95,000 refugees. Today, some officials in Washington are seriously proposing admitting precisely zero refugees in 2020, effectively ending our American tradition of welcome and comfort to those in need.

Refugees are the most vetted individuals to enter the U.S. They undergo heavy scrutiny and inspection to ensure everyone’s safety. Before they set foot in the U.S., they pass through complex security checks with over five U.S. agencies. While living in refugee camps abroad, many wait years, even decades, for the opportunity to be resettled on U.S. soil. Many are allies who assisted U.S. military operations and are now under attack for their actions.

As an example, those participating in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program — which allows the U.S. to resettle Afghans who worked alongside our brave troops in Afghanistan as translators, engineers, security guards, cultural advisors, soldiers, and more — suddenly find the solemn promises made to them about resettlement broken. They and other refugees from across the world are unable to return to the places they call home for fear of death, persecution, and violence.

Helping refugees find new homes in our country and our state is not a one-party-or-the-other issue; it has always been a strong bipartisan tradition. Because of this tradition, we have aided people from Vietnam, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and other countries.

Resettlement is a refugee’s last, and oftentimes only, option for safety. They are our future brothers and sisters who dream of the same opportunities we have received.

It is time we heed one of the greatest commands of all: to love our neighbors as ourselves. For this reason, I, along with many Christians and people of good will everywhere, urge the administration to set a reasonable and sustainable refugee ceiling. And we urge people of all faiths and good will to join us in this demand.

Thomas M. Aitken of Duluth is bishop of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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