The speech of the late Sen. Bob Bennett on July 24, 1997 stands out as the most respectful tribute ever paid to the Letter-Day St. pioneers. Distributed to the U.S. Senate floor, Bennett – then honored the 150th anniversary of Britham Young’s arrival in Salt Lake Valley:
“In today’s world, we look incessantly at articles and books about how we are all victims, we hoped that (the pioneers) could spend their time on what they lost and focus on their annoyance and bitterness and what other people had on them. They don’t. … Instead, their focus was on the future. “
This forward focus is something America needs right now. When we celebrate the hard work and art of our state’s pioneer ancestors on Friday, there is unrest in our country. We are plagued by global epidemics and economic decline. Social and ethnic oppression has rightly risen to the top of the national consciousness.
Pioneer Day gives us another opportunity to reflect on the most worrisome crisis of 2020 – millions of refugees fleeing persecution. Consider modern-day pioneers in need of opportunities for their better future.
A recent report by World Relief and Open Doors USA found that the United States has drastically reduced the number of acceptable Christian refugees from countries facing extreme persecution. If current rates continue, the United States will accept 90% fewer Christian refugees in fiscal year 2020 than in 2010.
Although some of the exemptions were due to the COVID-19 restrictions, they were – for the most part – the result of administrative action long before the lockdowns and travel bans took effect. Refugee resettlement in the United States has sunk under the current administration and those who are escaping religious persecution cannot be exempted – the issue of Christian refugee resettlement in the first three years under President Donald Trump was only adopted in fiscal year 2016.
“Religious persecution of Christians at the highest levels has threatened the lives of Christians by closing the doors to refugees and asylum seekers – and American Christians must not remain silent,” the report said.
This is a familiar story for letter-day saints. Nineteenth-century Salt Lake Valley pioneers fled from Missouri and Illinois – and consequently, the United States – because their constitutional right to freedom of religion was not adequately protected. Similar to what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820, “Freedom of religion, which was guaranteed to us by law on the basis of theory” has not yet “emerged (n)” in practice.
Centuries later, religious freedom is still a major issue around the world. The Trump administration has stepped up its global intervention in areas where believers have violated their rights, but is reluctant to allow victims to seek refuge in the United States. Trying to create so that they can have that religious freedom, ”Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last July.
As a society built by victims of religious persecution, Utahns will see how this argument can be flawed. Even in a country with a constitutional right to religious freedom, the persecution reached such a level that the pioneers had no choice but to find their own place.
The reality is that the Trump administration’s recent push for religious freedom has been described as a “maximum” inalienable right and a “foreign policy priority.” After the administration justified the so-called “Muslim sanctions” as an attempt to bring in more Christian refugees, Christians have now fled the countries where they face the most persecution, being admitted to the United States almost all the time – at low rates.
For decades after the introduction of the Refugee Act in 1980, the annual ceiling for refugee admissions was set at 230,000, before rising to over 20,000,000. The Trump administration has set a ceiling at a historic low for three consecutive years – this year, at 18,000. Canada has ranked the United States as a world leader in refugee resettlement, and this week, a Canadian federal judge declared the United States “unsafe” for refugees. There were 226 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2012, which could increase this year due to the Kovid-1p epidemic.
Several government figures and agencies, such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, have called for the annual ceiling to be restored to 95,000 refugees, with the president ultimately having the exclusive power to make decisions. Sadly, this decision was made while fighting against religious persecution abroad, most of its victims were rejected locally. There is no point in being a mountain light if we remove the switch when the Hablu public is in awe.
Thankfully, Utah and its leaders have made pioneering legacy champions. Governor Gary Herbert was consistent in his fight against refugee admissions by asking more about Washington’s crackdown. And by supporting the Utah Compact, the state cemented its guiding principles through a humane, community-first approach to immigration.
Now is not the time to abandon those policies or those traditions. Instead, as Sen. Bennett said in 199, we can be fit to lay the groundwork for the foundation pioneers.
“The legacy that is most precious to me and to the people of my state is … (the pioneers are) a legacy of hope and optimism and a willingness to forgive and forget and look to the future,” Bennett concluded. “We are celebrating this today because in the West they found their place far away, since God had really prepared them for where they were truly blessed.”
In the days to come, we can reflect very well over the past several years and see with shame the response to our country’s global refugee crisis. These pioneers, too, deserve to find a place.
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