Senator Cardin Hopeful for Change on Immigration, Refugee Resettlement

By Sharon Samber,

Senator Ben Cardin sounded cautiously optimistic.

As the Maryland Democrat addressed an audience of more than 350 on a HIAS-hosted post-election briefing call on Nov. 12, he enumerated many of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. But he was confident the incoming Biden administration will set a new course, restore refugee resettlement, and repair America’s broken asylum system.

“Change is on the horizon,” he said.

During his campaign, now-President-elect Biden said he would roll back a number of Trump policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates in the United States. Biden also announced that he will raise the number of refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000 in his first year in office, the first time he has confirmed that number as president-elect.

Cardin noted that nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have risen around the world, accompanied by increased harassment and violence.

“The key to dealing with this issue is U.S. leadership,” he said. “It is absolutely an essential element if we’re going to have a global response to displaced people around the world. The U.S. must be at the forefront in its leadership, in both our actions and in our words.”

Other countries, such as Jordan, Germany, and Colombia, have stepped up to aid migrants and refugees, Cardin said. By contrast, the U.S. has repeatedly slashed refugee admission numbers over the past several years.

“That’s just outrageous that America is not leading by example when it comes to refugees and resettlement,” Cardin said, calling Trump-era asylum policies “unconscionable.”

Kassim Rajab, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was resettled in Wisconsin by HIAS and Jewish Social Services of Madison, spoke about the need for the United States to once again become the place refugees dreamed of coming to. If he were ever to meet Biden, Rajab said, he would get down on a knee and plead with him. “Restore the image of this country,” he said. “We grew up knowing how powerful America is, how good America is, how there’s no discrimination, nothing.”

Cardin believes Biden will immediately use executive orders by Biden to undo much of the damage. He expects a reversal of Trump’s denial of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which affords safety to about 400,000 people from several different countries and supports their pathway to become U.S. citizens, as well as the restoration of asylum policies to international standards.

“In the long term, we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Cardin said, adding that he was optimistic that there was support for reform to be passed in the upcoming Congress.

HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said it would not be enough to undo Trump’s executive orders. HIAS must also help the new administration to “build back better” and make the immigration system better than it was before Trump took office. 

Melanie Nezer, HIAS’ senior vice president for public affairs, noted a sense of hope about the prospect of welcoming refugees, which will mean more people with talent, skills, and drive to contribute to American society. “Rebuilding is not going to be easy,” she said. “But we’re confident that with a lot of hard work we can get it done.”

Watch the entire briefing call:

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