Massachusetts refugee organizations urged the Trump administration on Tuesday to raise its proposed cap on refugees, noting that crises have forced millions from their homes and that the U.S. has the resources to respond.
The U.S. Department of State last week proposed accepting just 18,000 refugees in the fiscal year that began Tuesday — the lowest since the humanitarian program was created in 1980. Last year, the administration placed the cap at the then-record low of 30,000 refugees. In Barack Obama's last year as president, he set the annual cap at 110,000 refugees.
Leaders of Oxfam America, the International Institute of New England, Catholic Charities of Boston and other groups also called on state policymakers to bolster agencies serving refugees as they deal with layoffs and closures because of cuts to the federal refugee program.
The curtailment of the national refugee quota comes despite great global upheaval, said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. Nearly 26 million refugees have had to leave their homelands due to war, political repression, religious persecution and natural disasters in recent years, she said.
"People are suffering, and we need to help," Millona said, speaking at a forum at Oxfam's downtown Boston office. "We have the resources."
The Trump administration is also now requiring state and local governments to approve most refugee resettlements, which activists said Tuesday could open the door for some states and cities to ban refugees altogether.
The State Department said in a statement resettlement in the U.S. is just one way the administration supports refugees, citing diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America to billions of dollars in aid sent overseas for basic needs like food, shelter and health care.
"Helping refugees and other displaced people in areas close to their homes facilitates their return when conditions allow," the agency said in its statement. "This enables them to participate in rebuilding their homelands, promoting recovery and long-term stability of those countries and their neighbors, which also serves our foreign policy and national security interests."
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's office said it remains committed to supporting refugees despite the White House policies because they're "vital to Massachusetts' economy, culture and civic life."
The Baker administration said totals for the federal fiscal year that ended Monday weren't available, but the refugee advocacy coalition said 421 refugees were resettled in Massachusetts from Oct. 1, 2018, through May 31. There were 783 refugees resettled in the state in all of the 2018 fiscal year and 1,993 in the 2017 fiscal year, according to state data.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said he has proposed legislation that would mandate the country accept at least 95,000 refugees a year, a level that he says is based on the historical average for the nation.
"This is not the time to cut," he said. "This is the time to increase."
Tresor-Alin Nahimana, a 24-year-old refugee from Congo, said he's concerned that the cap on refugees will prevent him from reuniting with his wife and two young children.
He arrived in Massachusetts about seven months ago and has been working at a Starbucks while taking English classes.
But Nahimana said his family remains in Turkey, where they've lived for about three years since fleeing their homeland, where his father, mother and two of his siblings were killed in the country's ethnic strife.
Nahimana said he hasn't had the courage to tell his wife about the new refugee limit because he's afraid of how she'll respond.
"She can't do this alone," he said. "They need me. My kids need their father. They deserve it."