Op-Ed / United States 5 minutes

Trump’s Refugee Fiasco

The administration just slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will admit to a record low. Its reasoning doesn’t pass the laugh test.

It has been strange and unsettling to watch how much effort the Trump team has put into damaging the U.S. government’s own refugee resettlement program, but give them points for effectiveness.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the refugee ceiling for the coming fiscal year will be 30,000. It is the lowest number in the history of the nearly 40-year-old resettlement program. In so doing, he answered the depressing question experts have been asking for the past several weeks: Would the administration stay put at the record-low level it set for itself in 2018 — 45,000 refugees — or seek to plumb new depths in the coming year?

In any normal administration, the State Department, which runs the refugee resettlement program, would have led the charge in arguing for a number that better represents the United States’ capacity and humanitarian traditions — something closer to the historical average of 80,000. But in the Trump era, allies of immigration uber-hawk Stephen Miller have occupied key positions at State, virtually guaranteeing that leadership would not come out of Foggy Bottom. Instead, it was reportedly left to the Department of Defense to point out what is actually true: Refugee resettlement creates goodwill, rewards the loyalty of local partners who risk their lives to help U.S. personnel in places like Iraq, can help stabilise host countries bordering conflict zones, and makes it easier to ask the states bearing the brunt of the refugee burden to stretch even further in the humanitarian support they provide.

Refugee resettlement creates goodwill [and] rewards the loyalty of local partners who risk their lives to help U.S. personnel in places like Iraq.

But however hard or well the Pentagon might have argued, the odds were never with them. Close observers of this administration’s refugee policy suggested to us that the writing was on the wall months ago. The White House would lower the ceiling further into the historical basement, arguing that the program’s pathetic 2018 performance (the U.S. has actually admitted roughly 25,000 refugees, the lowest number in its history, and well short of the ceiling of 45,000) indicated a lack of capacity, and that it could hardly be expected to do better in the coming fiscal year. By way of further excuses, the administration could rely on its now familiar set of anti-resettlement tropes—pointing out America’s generosity with foreign aid (a point that would be more powerful if the administration had not worked so assiduously to slash assistance budgets) and arguing that resettlement personnel are needed to help adjudicate a growing backlog of asylum cases.

And that’s not too far from how things actually played out. In his relatively thin remarks Monday explaining why the administration was lowering the ceiling, Pompeo did indeed invoke U.S. assistance generosity, while awkwardly referring both to the number of refugees the United States expects to consider for resettlement next year and the number of asylees it expects to process. (Never mind that the resettlement program, which creates a legal pathway to bring vetted refugees from all corners of the globe to the United States, and asylum processing, which deals with people who come to the border under their own steam, are legally and operationally distinct.) There is every reason to expect the administration and its allies will roll out a fuller suite of excuses over the coming days.

If past is prologue, they will be largely nonsense. Let’s start with the idea that the U.S. government’s poor performance in 2018 was an actual reflection of its capacity. As a report just released by International Crisis Group shows, the poor 2018 numbers were the product of a conscious process of bureaucratic strangulation. Resettlement suffered because of a politically motivated suspension in 2017 that had huge ripple effects on resettlement logistics. It also suffered because of new vetting requirements, molasses-slow caseload processing, and the malign neglect of a White House that gives every indication of wanting the program to go away. When the Bush and Obama administrations (one of us worked under Obama, the other under both) hit snags with the resettlement program, they threw themselves into fixing the problem. Not this White House. They’re “tickled pink,” one official told us.

While the administration’s hostility toward refugees is hardly unexpected [...] it is still difficult to find a rational explanation.

But while the administration’s hostility toward refugees is hardly unexpected —candidate Donald Trump made Syrian refugees into a campaign issue — it is still difficult to find a rational explanation. The usual anti-immigration tropes don’t make much sense in the context of refugee resettlement. It can’t be, for example, that the administration sincerely worries about uncontrolled waves of resettled refugees driving down wages for low-skilled workers. Refugees who come through the resettlement program don’t come in uncontrolled waves. Their numbers are capped, and at levels way too low to have a meaningful impact on wages.

It’s also hard to believe the White House is really concerned about the burden refugees place on U.S. taxpayers. Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services prepared a draft report last year showing that resettled refugees produced a net economic benefit of $63 billion for the period 2005 to 2014. The White House accused the drafters of political bias and buried the report.

Nor do security concerns seem the source of the administration’s animus toward resettlement. If they were, then presumably the White House would have insisted on hearing out the National Counterterrorism Center’s non-alarmist assessment when they reportedly tried to brief it to senior officials last year. Instead, a senior Justice Department representative dismissed the findings without analysis. As a former Trump White House official told Crisis Group, it was clear at that moment that, “facts weren’t going to matter.”

The administration needs a real plan.

Finally, what about the argument that the administration needs to take personnel off the resettlement beat to work through hundreds of thousands of backlogged asylum claims? No sale. Reducing the asylum backlog is a massive and important job, but it could take several thousand employees to do it well and quickly. The administration needs a real plan. They must know that stealing several dozen refugee interviewers is neither necessary nor sufficient to the task.

Given that these justifications don’t hold up, maybe we need to consider one further possibility. Maybe the administration’s posture toward refugees is about something that no economic study or security regime or personnel infusion can fix. Maybe it’s about who the refugees are. After all, this is a president who called a major swathe of the global south “shithole countries,” who pined for higher levels of Norwegian migration, and whose administration draws policy inspiration from polemicists like Ann Coulter — who has described human diversity as a “train wreck.”

If that’s true, if that’s what is driving the administration’s war against a program that has provided transformative assistance to more than three million people over nearly four decades, and projected America’s best face to the world, then it’s time to come clean. The flimsy justifications the administration has offered don’t compute. They should invite the American people to judge them on the strength of their bitter convictions.


Former President & CEO
Chief of Policy

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