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Refugee services groups relieved, excited by new Biden proposal

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refugee camp
Tents at a refugee camp

MADISON (WKOW) -- President Joe Biden says he wants to increase the number of refugees who resettle in the U.S. by more than 800 percent.

That's good news according to Dawn Berney, the executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison, the only official refugee resettlement agency in the city.

"It is such an important thing and such the right thing to do," she said. "Almost all of us ended up in the United States with family members who were refugees in some way, shape, or form. This is something that our country is based on and it is truly important"

Each year, the president sets a cap on the number of refugees who will be accepted into the country.

President Donald Trump lowered the cap every year he was in office. In October, he set the cap for the 2021 fiscal year to 15,000, the lowest number since the Refugee Resettlement Program started in 1980.

Biden said he wants to raise the cap to at least 125,000 refugees. That would be the highest number since 1993.

Berney said that's a step in the right direction.

"We are the land of opportunity," she said. "We're the land of hope. We really are a country that thrives on that and [the higher cap] will allow us to finally go back to that."

She said JSS resettled 28 refugees in the past year. Under the higher admissions cap, she expects the agency to eventually resettle up to 100 people each year.

"We're really going back to our original preparations," she said. "So it's something that Madison is going to be ready for and people are excited about it."

But Berney said change won't happen overnight for a few reasons.

"Over the past four years, the number of staff working throughout the world has been reduced significantly," she said. "The process right now is very slow."

That's a message Ken Baun, the general manager of Open Doors for Refugees, echoed.

"We need to rebuild the infrastructure at the State Department and at the local resettlement agencies," he said. "It's going to take some time."

Berney said the COVID-19 pandemic is also affecting refugee resettlements. She said she expects resettlement numbers to pick up near October once more people have gotten vaccinated.

Berney is also celebrating Biden's repeal of the travel ban for majority-Muslim countries. She said this is a particularly exciting development for refugees hoping to reunite with their family members.

"The first three families we resettled in Madison were all from Syria," she said. "Once [the ban] went into effect, they knew that none of their family members would be able to come to the United States, and that it was automatic that the door was shut for them. To know that there's this hope throughout the world, again, is pretty spectacular."

Baun said he shares that excitement, too.

"People who haven't seen their their families in years, haven't seen their kids haven't seen their parents, their siblings, now will be able to travel," he said. "Hopefully, some of those folks will be able to join them here. So, that's a that's an incredible relief and jubilation."

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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