The Trump campaign promised to champion persecuted Christians, but the numbers tell a different story
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When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Christians had good reason to believe the United States had turned a corner when it came to prioritizing persecuted believers overseas. But under his administration refugee admissions have plunged to historic lows, with persecuted Christians in the Middle East suffering from the fallout.
The number of Middle East Christians admitted into the United States in 2018 fell by a staggering 98 percent from 2016. Christians from countries Open Doors ranked highest for religious persecution saw a 76 percent decline from 2016 to 2018. The trend continues in 2019. By March 2019 the United States had welcomed only 30 Iranian Christians, 25 Iraqi Christians, and zero Syrian Christian refugees.
To some believers, these numbers tell a different story than Trump himself told in the past. In a January 2017 interview with Christian Broadcasting Network News, Trump implied that the Obama administration had overlooked the plight of persecuted Christians and said his administration would be different. “We are going to help them,” he said. “They’ve been horribly treated. If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very, very tough, to get into the United States. If you were a Muslim, you could come in. But if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.”
Much has been made of the 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, a key political bloc he continues to court. Yet he runs the risk of growing disillusionment among Christians for whom their persecuted brethren is a key concern.
Among them is a community of Chaldean Christians in a Detroit suburb in Michigan. The National Catholic Register reported that a growing community of Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria helped flip Macomb County, a key suburb, red. Trump won Michigan by a mere 10,704 votes. Chaldean Christians were largely responsible for Macomb’s flip. They voted for Trump because of “what is happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria, because we have loved ones in the area,” according to Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation.
But rather than welcoming their families into the United States, Chaldean Christians saw their own families threatened with deportation back to Iraq. In 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained around 130 Iraqi Christians from the area, some for criminal offenses committed decades ago. The community turned out on the streets, touting signs with pictures of Trump and the words “You vowed to protect us” and “Stop the Deportation.” (The deportation has been temporarily halted, in part due to the ACLU and local leaders’ lobbying efforts.)
Cliff Sims, a former administration staffer who wrote Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House, noted in his book that Trump kept his promises on many things important to evangelicals, “but not the ones he made to persecuted Christians.”
Instead, persecuted Christians have become collateral damage in the administration’s tough policies on immigration and refugees.
In fiscal year 2018 the United States set a refugee ceiling of 45,000 people, but only welcomed 22,491 refugees, roughly half the goal. A good chunk of those were Christians, but often not from the areas where religious minorities face the harshest persecution and even genocide.
For fiscal year 2019 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a cap of 30,000. It is the lowest cap since President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act into law in 1980. The United States has admitted 10,700 refugees so far in fiscal year 2019, which began Oct. 1, 2018—2,000 are Christians from countries where they face persecution (28 from Iraq, and three from Syria).
“You have two things in conflict,” Sims told me. “Trump’s hard-line position on immigration and refugees; then you have a more nuanced piece of that—hey, but there are persecuted Christians there who are fleeing ISIS in Syria, in northern Iraq. If we don’t help them, who is going to?”
When Sims raised the issue to Stephen Miller, a key driver of the administration’s immigration and refugee policy, Miller reportedly responded that he “would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”
A number of evangelical leaders had almost unprecedented access to the Trump administration through an informal evangelical advisory board, and Sims says he never saw any of them remind him of the plight of persecuted Christians.
Spokesman for the evangelical advisory board Johnnie Moore said there were meetings where refugees were discussed. “I have [been] in several of them and I was privy to others,” he told me, though he did not respond to questions for specifics on what kind of concerns faith leaders raised.
Moore, appointed by Trump last year to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the administration’s focus was on deploying resources to Christians in places like Iraq and Syria rather than pushing for more to be admitted into the United States because “most refugees don’t want to immigrate unless they have to.”
The plummeting numbers have caused consternation in some Christian circles. In February 2018, a group of evangelical leaders signed a letter that ran as an ad in The Washington Post asking the administration to reconsider its policies. Last August, the Evangelical Immigration Table also sent a letter to Pompeo, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback asking them to keep the cap high for 2019. Christian leaders, including Franklin Graham, have also spoken out against the deportation of the Chaldean Christians.
World Relief is one of the nine private organizations that partner with the State Department to resettle refugees. Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization, expressed concerns about changes from personnel to policy that have slowed down the admissions process.
“We are all for an extremely thorough vetting process. But I’m not convinced the process that’s been developed since 9/11 has failed us,” Soerens said. “Our DHS has a good record.”
Soerens is also skeptical of the argument that refugees want to stay in their homeland. “No one has ever forced people to come to the United States as a refugee,” he said. “I interact with some of their family members here—they want to come to the United States. They want to be safe and have the opportunity to worship Jesus. Would they prefer to go back to their country and have that religious freedom there? Of course. But few of them think that is happening tomorrow.”
This story has been updated to correct the identity of the president who signed the Refugee Act into law in 1980.
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