LSSNCA Holds a Blockbuster Virtual Refugee Town Hall

Blog by LSSNCA Advocacy Associate, John Murphy

LSSNCA held a virtual Refugee Town Hall on May 20th in collaboration with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA). The blockbuster event drew an audience of 365 individuals who saw Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) receive the first annual Bertha Heiges Award for advancing refugee and immigration issues in Congress. Bertha Heiges was the first woman CEO of LSSNCA in 1924.

LSSNCA Board Chair Mary Burce-Warlick moderated the event, and the Honorable Anne Derse, former U.S. ambassador, and Deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, provided opening remarks. Ambassador Derse stressed the critical need for a renewed welcome for refugees, sharing estimates from the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees that in 2019, “nearly 80 million have been forcibly displaced from their homeland, 26 million of them were refugees and 4.2 million were asylum-seekers.” Derse noted that despite these staggering figures, “the past four years have seen the United States turn its back on our persecuted human beings from other countries. Our usual welcoming hospitality has been lacking.”

“But things are changing,” said Ambassador Derse, noting the new Administration’s work to “restore our ‘welcoming the stranger’ attitude.”

LSSNCA CEO, Kristyn Peck, presents Rep. Jamie Raskin with the first annual Bertha Heiges Award.

In presenting the Bertha Heiges Award, LSSNCA CEO Kristyn Peck noted Rep. Raskin’s long history of Congressional leadership and support for immigration and refugee issues.

Peck outlined various bills co-sponsored by Rep. Raskin in the 117th Congress that seek to create opportunities for New Americans and provide welcome, to include:

  • The United States Citizenship Act of 2021, which would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented persons who are living in our country and paying taxes.
  • The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which creates a process whereby undocumented persons brought to this country as children, known as Dreamers, would be eligible for permanent resident status and the right to earn citizenship in several years.
  • The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which acknowledges the importance of immigrants to our labor force and food production and establishes a system for farmworkers to earn temporary status with an eventual option to become permanent residents.

Peck commended Rep. Raskin for his role in securing an additional 4,000 Afghan SIVs for each of fiscal years 2019-2021, noting that 94% of LSSNCA’s clients were Afghan holders of SIVs in Fiscal Year 2020.

In accepting the Award, Rep. Raskin said “I’m not sure I deserve this… Nonetheless, I accept it and thank LSSNCA for it. I want to say further that we must welcome the persecuted stranger to our country. It is the patriotic thing to do. It is the ethos of America to welcome the stranger.”

A panel then ensued to talk about refugee and immigration in the United States.

Peck discussed the Biden Administration’s various attempts to reform U.S. immigration policy touching on the Executive Orders he has signed to overturn the past four years of restrictive immigration policies. Some of those she touched on include:

  • Restoring and strengthening the U.S. asylum system, including revoking the Migrant Protection Protocol, or Remain in Mexico policy;
  • Committing to restore welcome through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program by raising the refugee admissions cap to 62,500 people for FY21 and making available budgetary commitments to fulfill this promise;
  • Creating an Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing a Program to Resettle Refugees, including planning for the impact of climate change on international migrations; and
  • Introducing the United States Citizenship Act, which, among other things, replaces the term “alien” in U.S. immigration law with the term “non-citizen” and provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented persons living and working in the U.S. who have passed a background check and are paying taxes.

“These Executive Orders are already making an impact on New Americans residing in the United States and those waiting to come,” said Peck.

LIRS President and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, outlined the U.S. outlook for refugee resettlement under the Biden Administration.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of LIRS, zeroed in on the new President’s commitment to welcome 62,500 refugees for the 2021 fiscal year and said that advocates “must hold the Administration accountable for achieving that goal.” She said that increasing the number of refugees resettled this year is necessary if we are going to meet the President’s expected number of 125,000 fiscal year 2022. She encouraged advocates to push for an increase of 25,000 per year in future years. Only then, she said, “can the United States be the true beacon of hope for those oppressed.” O’Mara Vignarajah also expressed urgency for development of a “a legal framework for dealing with those who have been forced to leave their homes because of climate change.”

LSSNCA’s Vice President for Operations Mamadou Sy, spoke of the struggle resettlement agencies experienced in maintaining their infrastructure over the past four years because of the sharp decline in refugee admissions. He indicated that LSSNCA was able to survive and thrive because of its emphasis on resettling Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Holders. Sy indicated that LSSNCA has already seen an increase in the number of refugees coming to this country for resettlement as a result of President Biden’s increasing the cap for this year. “This is a good sign,” he said.


LSSNCA has been welcoming refugees and immigrants to the Washington Metro Area since the end of World War II. We would not be able to welcome our new neighbors without the help of generous partners, donors, and volunteers. You can take action and help welcome with us. Visit our website to learn more about how you can make a difference by becoming a refugee youth mentor, sponsoring a newly-arrived refugee family, practicing English with a newly arrived family, opening your home to a refugee minor through fostering, joining us for a World Refugee Day event, and donating to keep our services alive and robust. Your help is needed today! Information on these opportunities and more can be found at LSSNCA.org!

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