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Syrian refugees open new restaurant Nour Al-Sham, specializes in shawarma in Paterson on September 14, 2020. NorthJersey.com

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The Rev. Seth-Kaper Dale's phone began bursting with messages and emails late Thursday following news that President Joe Biden was officially pledging to revamp the beleaguered U.S. refugee program.

Biden had signed an executive order pledging to rebuild the resettlement program that had been gutted during the Trump administration and to raise admissions to 125,000 in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

"Hallelujah," said Kaper-Dale, who runs Interfaith-RISE, a refugee resettlement program based in Highland Park. "It's nice to be in a space where leadership once again believes in being leaders in service."

Interfaith-RISE is one of several resettlement agencies in New Jersey that have watched years of consecutive cuts to refugee admissions, despite what the United Nations has called record levels of displacement around the world.  Advocates welcomed the news that the U.S. would increase admissions, but warned that the Biden administration has a lot of work ahead to restore the program.

In his executive order, Biden directed federal agencies to review resettlement efforts, strengthen procedural protections for refugees and improve efficiency. He also rescinded Trump administration policies that had hobbled the program, like "extreme vetting" requirements and an order mandating state and local consent on resettlement.

At Interfaith-RISE, which the State Department designated an official resettlement agency in October 2016, staff and volunteers are prepared for what they hope will be an influx of new clients.

"We are so ready," said Kaper-Dale. "We can take as many as they send our way."

Hope for families

President Donald Trump admitted 53,716 refugees his first year in office, down from 85,000 a year earlier. Admissions dropped further to 22,517 and 30,000 in the next two years.

He cut the refugee admissions goal again to 18,000 last year, but actual arrivals totaled less than 12,000, slowed in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

During that time, New Jersey arrivals dropped from 536 to 124.

Courtney Madsen, director of the Jersey City office of Church World Service, a resettlement agency, said Biden's order would renew hope for refugee families who have been unable to reunite because of severe restrictions. The new president has moved quickly to undo many of his predecessor's more restrictive immigration policies, including the ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries. 

"Along with previous orders rescinding the Muslim ban and addressing the asylum system, there is finally hope for families who have been separated from loved ones," she said.

A backlog of tens of thousands of cases that built up under the Trump administration makes it unlikely Biden’s target of resettling 125,000 refugees could be reached this year, advocates have said. It will take time to rebuild the pipeline. More than one-third of U.S. resettlement offices were forced to close over the past four years with the drop in refugee arrivals and hundreds of workers were let go.

CWS is awaiting details in a report Biden is expected to file with Congress, Madsen  said. His plan should restore allocations based on vulnerability and regional needs, resume referrals from the UN Refugee Agency and reaffirm the administration’s commitment to refugee protection, she wrote in an email.

The agency is also calling for the U.S. to boost funding for resettlement networks "to support robust arrivals and do careful preparation in communities and with state, local, and civic leaders."

"I look forward to learning more details of how we will accomplish this lofty goal in partnership with the administration," Madsen said.

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'We are so ready'

Since its founding, Interfaith-RISE has served about 250 refugees from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries. Last year, they had 50. They were slated to have 100 people this fiscal year but have had seven so far – a family of six from Guatemala and one person from Ukraine.

Staff members assist with English language instruction, social services, education and job placement, among other work. Interfaith-RISE is administered by the Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corp., which has 110 apartments that it rents to low-income clients including refugees.

The nonprofit group also serves a large number of asylees and unaccompanied minors, or children under 18 who arrived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian and without legal status.

A large network of volunteers and supporters has provided refugees with donated furniture and computers, Kaper-Dale said. Some have gotten donations of cars to help them work and build their lives here.

The pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park said he looks forward to a kinder approach to the refugee program, which historically had bipartisan support and was a global role model.

Trump administration officials said they took strong steps to limit refugees because they were dealing with a sharp increase in asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. and had a backlog of those cases. But in speeches, Trump often used rhetoric depicting refugees as a threat or a burden. 

"We lost our moral authority of sorts," Kaper-Dale said. "This is just the beginning of serving."

Email: adely@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @adelyreporter 

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