By: Rute Belachew, RPCV Panama
RPCV Voices is a blog series on the Peace Corps Community for Refugees website. The purpose is to allow returned Peace Corps Volunteers the opportunity to share their experience as refugees, work with refugee communities, or opinions about the refugee crisis. If you have a story to share, please email email@example.com.
During this election season, I keep hearing people say that voting for president does not matter. “Nothing will change.” “The media is perpetuating sensationalism to keep us distracted.” “Everything is corrupt and will stay corrupt.” These suggestions, steadily growing amongst Millennials and Gen Z, have no historical basis and, ironically, show the contradiction of this type of thinking.
I like to ask people if they know how many refugees were accepted into the U.S. in 2015 versus 2018. Most do not. In 2015, 118,431 individuals were provided refuge compared to less than 23,000 in 2018. As this administration’s first term comes to a close, less than 77,000 refugees have been admitted in four years compared to nearly 85,000 in 2016 alone. Contrary to the notion that voting does not matter, the depressing impact of the 2016 election on refugee admittance says otherwise.
A combination of xenophobia, racism, and classism has caused a blissful ignorance for some U.S. Americans who do not care about the struggles of refugees because it is not happening to them. Others are fueled by rhetoric that “immigrants are stealing our jobs” and that Central American asylum seekers are “rapists, drug dealers and murderers.” These anti-immigration individuals are enraged enough to vote for an administration that sells racist propaganda to cover the inhumane treatment of brown and black immigrants.
Beyond rhetoric, Presidential Executive Orders matter. The current administration’s 2017 “Muslim Ban” was controversial enough to gain massive media attention and numerous lawsuits in front of the Supreme Court. Lesser known, there was also an order indefinitely suspending admission of Syrian refugees and reducing intake from 30,000 to 18,000. There were hundreds of Syrian refugees that went through two years of screening, just to be stuck in limbo. Other orders and legislation were signed that transformed legal admissions of asylees into prison-like holdings with unknown fates – even by the ones that put them there.
In the midst of the Muslim Ban protests, I interned at the Refugee Services of Texas. The center is a social service dedicated to providing assistance to immigrants to make up for the lack of systemic support. Since 1978 they have served refugees, asylees, minors, survivors of human trafficking, etc. by relying heavily on volunteers and donations.
As an intern for the center, I saw first-hand the impact of this administration’s policies. When I began in 2016, the office was lively, filled with staff and clients with their many questions. The center had volunteers and organizations that planned activities for women and children beneficiaries. Their main complaint was that they had too many clients and not enough staff. When I returned to intern after graduating in 2017, nearly half the staff was gone. Most either quit due to new bureaucratic frustrations or were laid off due to the decreasing number of clients since refugees were no longer being admitted in consistent quantities.
Clearly, elections have consequences. The ones that pay for them the most are the ones who don’t have privilege or power. While a large percentage of U.S. Americans opt out of an election they have deemed inconsequential, displaced families are trying to find refuge. Seeking asylum has become nearly impossible in an already bleak and complex system. Refugee admission to the U.S. will soon be nonexistent as the cap continues to decrease under this administration.
Problematic rhetoric and xenophobic executive orders powered by one man are controlling who gets shelter in this country. Although something so vital should not be in the hands of just one person, that is the system that we have. We have to work within the system to dismantle it; but that cannot be done if we do not pay attention to those that are living lives we only see in movies. This election may not affect you personally, and that is a privilege. How you use that privilege shapes the lives of those that lack it.
Suspension on Syrian refugees:
Displaced peoples’ Stats: