The U.S. State Department informed Congress this week that the U.S. anticipates 15,000 refugees to be admitted and resettled during fiscal year 2021, the lowest number allowed since 1980. Catholic groups told CNA that they believe the U.S. can and should accept more refugees in 2021, rather than fewer.

In a media note posted Sept. 30, the State Department said the U.S. anticipates receiving more than 300,000 new refugee and asylum claims in fiscal year 2021, and that the department already has a backlog of 1.1 million claims.

About 9,000 refugees entered the US in fiscal year 2020. The administration had planned to allow 18,000, but the coronavirus pandemic led President Trump to suspend indefinitely the asylum system in March.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, and Bishop Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishops of Washington and chair of the USCCB's migration committee, said Oct. 2: "We continue to be disappointed by the Trump Administration's diminishment of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, as these decisions have a tangible impact on those fleeing religious persecution and other vulnerable families in need of refuge. While refugees will thankfully be allowed to seek refuge here in the United States in 2021, the low number of admissions, given the global need and the capacity and wealth of the United States, is heartbreaking. We exhort Congress to seriously examine the Administration's proposal and strongly encourage the President to increase the eventual presidential determination significantly."

The bishops said that "welcoming refugees is an act of love and hope. By helping to resettle the most vulnerable, we are living out our Christian faith as Jesus has challenged us to do."

"We urge the Administration to continue to offer welcome to refugees to our country. We can and must lead by example in the defense of all human life, including those fleeing persecution," they concluded.

Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, urged the administration to reconsider, given the refugee program's humanitarian mission. Local Catholic Charities groups throughout the country are often very involved in the resettlement of refugees.

"The individuals and families who apply for this program aren't doing so by choice. They have been forced to flee their homeland to avoid persecution, threats of violence, and death," Markham said Oct. 1.

"These are real people with real stories of sacrifice and struggle many of us cannot begin to comprehend. They aren't looking for a handout, rather they enhance our economy, culture, and communities every day."

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The department said the system will prioritize those who are already in the country seeking humanitarian protection, of which there are about 290,000. The number of people granted asylum will be decided by immigration courts.

Under previous administrations, the number of refugees admitted to the United States regularly exceeded 100,000 a year.

Bill O'Keefe, executive vice president for Mission, Mobilization and Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, said that they have observed the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on displaced people around the world firsthand.

CRS helps displaced people outside the US, and works to improve conditions for them in their home countries, O'Keefe said, but also they recognize that sometimes fleeing is the only option.

"While we can support many to stay where they are, too many of the most vulnerable need a new home and the United States can and should provide that home to significantly more than 15,000 people," O'Keefe told CNA.

"The number of the world's displaced people exceeds the combined population of Texas, Florida, and New York, yet America is accepting the equivalent of a small village of 15,000 people. CRS itself is supporting 10 times that number of displaced people around the world. Surely our country can do more."

The State Department said in its media note that this year's proposed refugee resettlement program will include specific allocations for people who have suffered or fear persecution on the basis of religion, such as for Iraqis whose assistance to the United States has put them in danger; for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; and for refugees from Hong Kong, Cuba, and Venezuela.

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Some of the countries in which CRS is active, such as Uganda, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iraq, Colombia, and Kenya, have had to shoulder much larger relative burdens in terms of refugees than the United States, O'Keefe said: "For other governments to mobilize support for these most vulnerable refugees, the United States must do more to welcome the stranger."

Jesuit Refugee Services similarly decried the reduced number and appealed to Christians to be open to greater numbers of refugees.

"Reflective of our nation's core values and Christian responsibility to 'welcome the stranger,' the refugee resettlement program demonstrates the best of who we are as a country," said Joan Rosenhauer, JRS/USA Executive Director.

"It is deeply disappointing that this program will, again, be smaller, hampering in its ability to demonstrate these American values and disregarding this Christian responsibility."