Joe Biden intends to admit 125,000 refugees in his first year. Many will be fleeing religious persecution. While highlighting persecution, President Trump cut refugee admissions to 15,000.



There are 1.4 million refugees around the world who need to be resettled. That is according to the United Nation, which says many of them have fled religious persecution. While the Trump administration has highlighted the plight of many religious minorities, for the most part, it has shut the country's doors to refugees. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that President-elect Biden is promising to change that.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Shortly after his election, Joe Biden told a Jesuit refugee service that his administration would aim to bring 125,000 refugees here each year.


JOE BIDEN: The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a leader in resettling refugees in our humanitarian response. I promise, as president, I'll reclaim that proud legacy for our country.

GJELTEN: That would be a sharp change. President Trump last month said he'd allow only 15,000 refugees to come here next year. At a campaign rally in Minnesota this fall, he proudly contrasted his attitude toward refugees with that of his opponent.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sleepy Joe Biden's extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet.

GJELTEN: Notwithstanding such refugee bashing, the Trump administration has actually earned high marks for how it highlighted the persecution of religious minorities around the world. Trump's State Department hosted two international meetings on the issue. He even issued an executive order mandating that support for religious freedom become a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy. Knox Thames was a State Department adviser for religious minorities under President Obama, and he stayed on as part of the Trump team.

KNOX THAMES: I think on promoting international religious freedom, it's safe to say they did more than any other administration has.

GJELTEN: But then, he says, there was the Muslim ban and Trump turning his back on refugees, including those fleeing religious persecution.

THAMES: Here we are working to defend the right of people to believe anything or nothing, to change faith. We're pushing governments to reform their laws. And then when you see thousands of people who are being persecuted for their beliefs, needing to flee their homes, then suddenly we're at the back of the line. We're no longer a leader.

GJELTEN: Thames left the State Department four months ago. Groups that try to help refugees were likewise dismayed by Trump's steep cut in refugee admissions. Jenny Yang is vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization.

JENNY YANG: Just in the past few years, there's been a decline of over 40% of countries that are admitting refugees into the refugee admissions program. And it's because if the United States is not taking its position as a world leader, other countries are effectively shutting their doors as well.

GJELTEN: Yang welcomed Joe Biden's promise of a new refugee policy, but she says it set up a challenge - groups that work on resettlement laid off people when refugee admissions dropped off under Trump. World Relief is among those that will now need to ramp up again.

YANG: Not only do we need to hire staff that have expertise in this area, but we need to train them. We need to prepare our offices, even reopen offices in certain communities where refugees are going to be going. And that takes a lot of time and investment.

GJELTEN: Eventually, a Biden administration may want to give religion-related issues more attention in U.S. foreign policy. Chris Seiple is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement.

CHRIS SEIPLE: You need to think about how we train and equip all U.S. personnel with religious literacy as a function of a broader engagement strategy because religion is not something you tack on as another box. Religion is in all the boxes.

GJELTEN: A Biden administration could then make refugee policy part of a larger effort to deal with what drives people to leave home in the first place, like wars over religion. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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