This summer marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 20th anniversary of World Refugee Day. Both came at a moment of unprecedented crisis. The UN Refugee Agency reports that as of the end of 2020, some 82.4 million people—about 1 in 95 people in the world—have been forcibly displaced due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.” For decades after the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States was a haven for those fleeing persecution and violence. Until 2018, it welcomed more refugees than any other country. Religious groups are and have been central in this process. Today, as Religion News Service reports, “six of the nine agencies contracted by the U.S. government to resettle refugees are faith-based.” These organizations and their supporters have a substantial interest in the direction of U.S. refugee policy and considerable political and moral power they can wield with lawmakers. Yet their religious affinities, coupled with the political orientation of their memberships, sometimes dictate which refugees they view as most worthy of their advocacy. This dynamic is not new, as history shows, but it can lead to preferential treatment for some groups over others, undermining the U.S. image as a beacon of hope for the world’s persecuted peoples.
On May 3, 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he had raised the national cap on the number of refugees that would be allowed into the United States. For this fiscal year, the limit is 62,500 admissions, up significantly from the historic low of 15,000 that the Trump administration set in late 2020. Religious groups had emerged as strong opponents of the Trump-era reduction in refugee admissions, including some connected with the politically conservative and predominantly white evangelical churches that had otherwise aligned themselves strongly with the then-president. Refugee policy represented a rare breach in their support for Trump. Biden stated that his new cap would “reinforce efforts that are already underway to expand the United States’ capacity to admit refugees,” and his ultimate goal would be 125,000 refugee admissions for the next fiscal year. Despite his assertion that U.S. refugee admissions reflected “America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world,” Biden’s announcement came only after significant pressure from refugee advocacy groups, religious organizations, and Democratic leaders in Congress. An earlier Biden White House memorandum had left refugee admissions capped at 15,000, the same low level left by the Trump administration.
As individuals who are fleeing persecution in their home nations because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” refugees constitute a distinct group in U.S. and international law. They are different from migrants, who have chosen to move from their home countries but could return safely if they so chose, as well as from people seeking asylum, who have fled persecution but have not yet been formally recognized as refugees. Acrimonious debate about immigration policy in the United States tends to blur the distinctions among these groups in the popular imagination, however.
Political considerations also affect how the United States assigns those legal categories to people from different countries who are seeking asylum or entry into the country. In 2018, Trump administration officials moved to implement stricter standards for asylum seekers that would block claims from individuals fleeing domestic violence or persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in their countries. The policy reflected conservative rhetoric about “illegal” immigration as well as the conservative political aim of greatly reducing the number of Central Americans entering the United States. Liberal activists and immigrant rights organizations viewed the policy to deny gender-based violence claims as an attack on women and LGBTQ rights. Liberal groups also mobilized in response to Trump’s ban on refugees from several Muslim-majority countries, decrying the policy as Islamophobic as well as counterproductive to the administration’s purported national security aims. Even though advocacy on behalf of refugees exists across the political spectrum, the way that activist organizations and lawmakers discuss refugees reveals that broader debates about immigration cannot be easily separated from the country’s contentious political and cultural divides.
Religious organizations, many of which have positioned themselves as stalwart champions of refugees because of their faith’s doctrines as well as their commitment to supporting persecuted co-religionists, are not immune from these political dynamics. Add to this mix the desire to protect core constitutional values such as religious freedom and to promote those values internationally through U.S. foreign relations, and refugee policy takes on extra ideological weight. Spiritual and national values notwithstanding, the nature of faith-based advocacy for refugees reflects the current political conflicts and ongoing culture wars in the United States—and this is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s and 1980s, politically liberal and conservative religious organizations alike dedicated particular attention to the cause of protecting and welcoming refugees, yet the individuals or groups that these organizations defined as refugees often differed based on their political commitments.
Although U.S. faith groups of all stripes have involved themselves in organized global humanitarian work since the nineteenth century, the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War brought renewed focus to refugees, religious persecution, and related human rights issues. In July 1951, the United Nations adopted its Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which offered a specific and inclusive definition of “refugee” based on the idea codified in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights that all people have the right to seek “asylum from persecution.” The Cold War with the Soviet Union initially diverted U.S. attention from international human rights. By the 1970s, though, a confluence of factors including ideology (in particular the idea that the United States was at war with “godless communism”), ongoing religious persecution in the Soviet bloc, and the emergence of the international human rights movement empowered congressional action and religious activism on human rights. Alongside these developments, the proxy and covert wars of the Cold War contributed to an increased flow of refugees worldwide throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Refugees seeking to flee faith-based persecution in their home countries prompted special concern in the United States.
Jewish organizations and human rights advocates in the United States worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the plight of the Soviet Jewry, who faced legal discrimination, deeply rooted anti-Semitism, and restrictions that limited their ability to leave their country. In the 1970s, U.S. Jewish activists put pressure on the Nixon administration to address this religious persecution as part of its diplomacy with the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger preferred backchannel discussions for such issues and generally disdained overt congressional human rights advocacy, but nonetheless did begin to address Jewish emigration restrictions with Soviet leaders. In addition, in November 1971, The Washington Post reported that the Nixon administration would “admit without limit Soviet Jews” seeking refuge from persecution in the Soviet Union. When the Kremlin imposed a new and onerous “system of exit fees” and diploma taxes aimed at further limiting the rights of Jews to leave the Soviet Union in 1972, Jewish organizations and members of Congress mobilized.
Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Representative Charles Vanik of Ohio introduced an amendment to an international trade act that would make trading privileges with non-market countries contingent on those countries upholding the right of citizens to emigrate. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment passed Congress and became part of the Trade Act of 1974. When it did, it became a crucial tool in the arsenal that human rights advocates and sympathetic policy makers could use to influence U.S. foreign relations. In conjunction with congressional and interest group activism, the amendment ensured that restrictions on the freedom of religious minorities in the Soviet Union to emigrate or practice their faiths would remain a sticking point in U.S.-Soviet relations into the 1980s. Despite some improvements for religious minorities under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the U.S. government continued to grant refugee status to almost all Soviet Jewish emigres. That said, the number of exit visas that the Soviet Union issued to Jews remained fairly low for much of the decade.
In 1989, the Soviet Union fully loosened emigration restrictions, in part because Soviet leaders hoped that the removal of Jackson-Vanik-imposed trade limitations would improve their country’s poor economic situation. This turnabout led to such an enormous increase in Soviet religious minorities seeking admission to the United States as refugees that the George H.W. Bush administration moved to impose new admission limits. Jewish organizations, along with evangelical Christian groups concerned about persecuted Soviet Baptists and Pentecostals, mounted a speedy response. A New York Times article on the new admissions cap noted that “the debate over Soviet emigration demonstrates how United States refugee policy can be affected by domestic political pressures. Dozens of groups have prodded the Administration to keep the doors open to refugees from the Soviet Union and Indochina; there is much less debate in Congress about the plight of Africa’s four million refugees.” Religious organizations in particular exercised tremendous political power through their activism on behalf of persecuted co-religionists.
Religious persecution and refugees also became a contentious factor in U.S. relations with Central America during the Reagan administration. A long history of U.S. interventionism and economic coercion throughout Latin America had contributed to political instability, poverty, and violence in many countries. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers viewed the emergence of any left-leaning political parties in the region as evidence of attempted Soviet subversion. They responded by authorizing covert operations to remove from power leaders they perceived as unfavorable and replace them with friendly authoritarian leaders instead, such as in the 1954 CIA coup that ousted the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, and installed the right wing dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas, in his place. Many of the right-wing military dictatorships that the United States supported committed gross human rights violations against their citizens in order to suppress political dissent. In addition to creating new flows of refugees, these abuses provoked the ire of human rights activists and members of Congress, who managed to impose at least some legislative restraints on the extension of U.S. aid to repressive authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he resisted these efforts, seeking instead to revivify the Cold War and crush what he perceived as a rising communist threat in Central America.
Politically conservative white evangelical Christians became key allies in Reagan’s fight. In the Nicaraguan Contra War, where the Reagan administration backed the counterrevolutionary Contras in their fight to oust the Sandinista government, these evangelicals mobilized through Christian radio, television and other media to share White House messaging that claimed the Sandinistas threatened religious liberty in Nicaragua. Despite widely reported evidence (including from progressive evangelicals) that Contra forces were torturing, maiming, raping, and killing civilians, Reagan and his evangelical supporters contended that the Sandinistas were placing restrictions on churches and harassing and attacking religious believers. In addition, they lambasted the Sandinistas for forcibly relocating a large group of Miskito Indians, most of whom identified as Moravian Christians. With this messaging in hand, conservative evangelicals lobbied members of Congress to provide aid to the Contras. They also sought to evangelize Nicaraguan refugees who had fled to Honduras to escape the war and supported efforts to raise money for their support. At a fundraising dinner for the conservative Nicaraguan Refugee Fund, Reagan lamented the refugee situation and expressed great concern for the Nicaraguans who were fleeing what he described as a “Sandinista police state.”
This concern came in marked contrast to the stance the Reagan administration and its white evangelical allies took on refugees fleeing from brutal human rights abuses in El Salvador and Guatemala. Reagan contended that unlike in Nicaragua, with its totalitarian government, people living under military dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala were not being persecuted and should not be classified as refugees. Human rights organizations and many Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Jewish organizations disagreed, however. Despite the threat of fines and legal action, hundreds of U.S. churches and synagogues provided sanctuary to undocumented Central Americans who had escaped from the devastating political violence in the region. They also aided in resettlement efforts for those still living in refugee camps outside of their home countries. The religious organizations that led the Sanctuary Movement brought considerable attention to the plight of refugees and to the effects of the Reagan administration’s foreign policies in Central America.
Clearly, many religious groups in the United States have long demonstrated their commitment to welcoming refugees, particularly those that share their faith. In recent years, they have mounted a strong defense against the efforts of the U.S. government to curtail refugee admissions. This is admirable and important work. Yet the same tendency to focus on co-religionists that has made these groups so effective as advocates means that not all are devoting their concern equally to refugees from outside of their faith tradition. While religious organizations of all varieties rallied against former president Trump’s “Muslim ban,” many (though not all) white evangelicals espoused support for it, and some of those who opposed it did so on the grounds that it might limit their evangelistic reach. Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, advocacy for (or against) particular refugee groups tended to follow sectarian and political allegiances. Given the scale of the current refugee crisis, the severity of religious persecution worldwide, and our stated national commitment to promoting human rights and religious liberty, the United States must commit its efforts to fostering a truly inclusive policy for welcoming refugees—whatever their religious (or non-religious) background.
Lauren Turek is associate professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She is the author of To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations. Follow her @laurenfturek on Twitter.