Biden's Increase in Refugee Limits Gives Hope to Local Centers

Feb. 24, 2021, 9:45 a.m. ·

Vietnamese elders dance at the Asian Center's Lunar New Year 2019 celebration in Lincoln (Photo Courtesy ACCC).

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In his first 100 days as president, President Joe Biden revoked the Trump administration’s travel ban on people from majority-Muslim countries and vowed to increase the number of refugees allowed in the US. Refugees and resettlement agencies in Nebraska are hopeful for the future.

In one of his first acts in office, President Biden promised to increase the number of refugees allowed to 125,000 during the fiscal year which begins Oct. 1.

Lincoln barber Hasan Khalil said he’s excited about the news. Khalil was born in Northern Iraq but lived in a refugee camp in Syria for 11 years until he moved to the US. He hopes more refugees can now be resettled in America.

"It's really tough out there still with all those refugee camps and not having electric, not having water," he said.

In 2016, Nebraska resettled the most refugees per capita in the nation. Donna Magnuson is the chief program officer for Lutheran Family Services Refugee Resettlement Program and said in 2016, the organization resettled 367 refugees in Lincoln and 653 in Omaha. That number dwindled every year under the Trump administration. This fiscal year hit an all-time low of only 15,000 refugees allowed into America.

"Last year, I don't think we even hit 50 for the entire state," she said. "And this year, we hope to bring that up to half of what we did before the crash, so to speak."

Magnuson said seeing the effects on the refugee families was the hardest part these past four years.

"Because we know that the number of refugees around the world did not decrease, but the number of refugees being assisted by the United States did," she said. "And so knowing the effects on families was really our greatest challenge, because we couldn't help families that couldn't get here."

Lutheran Family Services is pleased with Biden’s plan, but doesn’t expect a drastic change this year. Magnuson said refugees can’t come here until they’ve passed multiple layers of screening.

"That uptick of refugees will occur, but it won't be like we resettle zero today and 100 a day tomorrow, that's not going to happen, " she said. "It will happen and we are thrilled about that, that we are going to get more refugees, but it will be incremental over the course of this year. And then hopefully by next year, we'll return to that normal pace."

Saad Murad is the director of media and relations of the Yazda-Yazidi Cultural Center in Lincoln and agrees with Magnuson. The center provides services like English language and citizenship classes to refugees from Kurdistan and Iraq. Murad also believes there’s other factors that will make the transition to the new administration’s immigration policies much slower.

"We hope that things will change with this administration and many more people will be resettled, but we see the challenges with this administration will be, that the process that was put by the other previous administration will may take more time to be fixed," he said. "And also the challenges with COVID-19 and restrictions on travels."

Murad said the center has about 400 cases from Iraq still pending and they’re hoping the new administration will revisit the applications.

Sheila Dorsey Vinton is the executive director of the Asian Community & Cultural Center in Lincoln, which offers comprehensive and holistic services to refugees. She said they anticipate the need for their services to pick up and they may need to increase staffing.

"It's good to have the United States welcome those folks, to the U.S. As a country that's welcomed people for so long that they're wonderful contributors to the diversity in our country and help make us a strong nation," she said. "We have this history of being a welcoming state, and Lincoln especially being a welcoming city. Refugees and other immigrants provide us with lots of labor that helps with our economy, and they just make Lincoln and Nebraska a better place to live."

Hasan Khalil, the barber from Lincoln, said he believes the United States is on the right path when it comes to how it treats refugees. His biggest hope is to unite the country by building a closer community so more people can help refugees.

"Unite people here and bring the community together more and, bring cultures together, you know, like, bring other cultures and get to know and learn from each other," he said."There's always something good we could take from each other."

Khalil said he thinks everyone should have a chance to come here and rebuild their lives, like he did, because the U.S. is a great country and there’s room for all of us.