Championing refugees with Sam Witten

Sam Witten.
Photo by Andrea F. Siegel

The plight of refugees concerns Sam Witten, as the former State Department official and Bethesda resident sees the Trump administration’s repeated lowering of the cap on the number of refugees admitted into the United States.

“It’s very sad and depressing, and I hope it gets reversed,” Witten says.

The administration announced it would drop the refugee cap to 18,000 for 2020. That is 40 percent lower than the 2019 ceiling, a fraction of 110,000 limit that President Barack Obama had in place in his final year in office, and reportedly the lowest in the program’s history.

The Trump administration has defended its posture; among reasons given is putting resources toward backlogged asylum cases. Opponents viewed it as another administration
assault on immigration.

Witten, 62, is a former longtime career State Department legal and policy official who as principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration helped manage the government’s global refugee relief programs from 2007 to 2010. Previously he held the department’s top career legal post, supervising legal work that included refugee programs.

“As I reflect on that experience, it is entirely consistent with Jewish teachings, given our own history of needing protection, not just the Exodus story but throughout the years,” he says.
“This is the same program that brought in Soviet Jews and created lives in the United States for our families and community, so apart from the Torah and apart from the general humanitarian values, this is a practical and important program for the United States and the Jewish community.”

In 2010, he left for private law practice with Arnold & Porter, and is involved in issues related to refugee relief.

Witten has spoken out, including at religious institutions, against the lowered refugee admission caps, advocating restoring the resettlement program to higher levels. His larger role has been with KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), which trains volunteer lawyers to represent unaccompanied minors in immigration proceedings in the United States.

He says the lower caps are missed opportunities for communities in the United States, as resettled refugees contribute to them in many ways.

Witten, who lives with his wife, Joan Kleinman (their children are grown), and their two rescue dogs, grew up in Pikesville.

His takeaway from the Exodus story: Jews helplessly endured a dreadful existence enslaved in Egypt. Even if they could leave, where would they go, how would they survive? Welcoming those in need is the “fundamental lesson and mandate” of Judaism, he said in a d’var Torah at Kol Shalom, the Conservative congregation in Rockville where he is a past president. Jews cannot forget their past. The Torah says 36 times to welcome the stranger, reminding Jews that they were strangers in Egypt.

And, “just ethically it is the right thing to do.”

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program vets refugees for admission to the United States. Domestic organizations are contracted to help resettle those admitted to try to ensure their success, he says. Its humanitarian work speaks volumes about the United States.

Witten says: “The Trump administration should understand that this is a crucial program for the United States and has been important to our nature as a country. Our philosophy as a country has always been to remember that we are a nation of immigrants and to welcome those in need.”

Immigration, however, has become a politically divisive issue, though congressional support for the program was bipartisan for decades, he says.

The reductions have implications for foreign policy, as the program projects the image and ideals of the United States, and improves relations with other nations.

In an introduction to a 2019 advocacy piece of the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, he wrote that the “administration’s actions undermine the standing of the U.S. in international relief circles, as well as with our allies.”

The program helps stabilize the countries where refugees flee, Witten says. That and assistance for refugee camps help diffuse tensions there.

As it asked other countries to do more, the United States led in accepting the most refugees, “and helped fund and shape refugee relief worldwide,” he wrote.

It no longer accepts the most.

“By setting the number so low, the United States is making it impossible to address critical needs,” Witten says.

He wrote in the Niskanen piece: “People of compassion and vision from both political parties should step up and say ‘no’ to the administration’s misguided policy.”

Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.

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