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Resurrecting the Refugee Resettlement Program

While we were distracted, President Trump succeeded in effectively pausing the important strategic and humanitarian program.
September 24, 2020
Featured Image
A woman wearing a niqab (full face veil) walks carrying an infant at al-Hol camp for displaced people in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on July 22, 2019, as people collect UN-provided humanitarian aid packages. (Photo by Delil souleiman / AFP) (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With a Supreme Court nomination on the line, fires consuming the West Coast, and a pandemic still producing nearly 1,000 deaths a day across the country, the plight of 80 million displaced people worldwide may seem distant and unsolvable to most voters. Over the last three and half years, however, the United States has done the unthinkable for a nation once regarded as the world’s ultimate beacon of liberty: We have all but shut our doors to vulnerable refugees, including those whose plight has worsened because of decisions made by Donald Trump.

Whether Syrians who fled their homes during the long, murderous assault by Bashar al Assad, Venezuelans who are literally starving because of the policies of Nikolas Maduro, Sudanese fleeing civil war and inter-ethnic violence, or Rohingya forced out of their homes by genocidal assaults from the ruling government in Myanmar, these refugees have found the doors to resettlement in the U.S. largely shut since Trump took office. Although the administration set a ceiling of 20,000 refugees for 2020, a low in the 40-year history of the program, the U.S. has actually accepted fewer than 8,000 through June, down from nearly 85,000 during President Obama’s last year in office. And with the pandemic giving Trump an excuse to bar pretty much anyone or any group he chooses, maybe it is no surprise that he has yet to inform Congress how many refugees the U.S. will continue to accept.

The Niskanen Center, where I serve as a senior fellow, has just released a report on Restoring the United States’ Refugee Resettlement Program that argues that refugee resettlement is not only a humanitarian issue but is good for America. Refugee resettlement has traditionally been a bipartisan issue since its inception in 1980. In response to the tragedy of the Vietnamese Boat People driven from their homeland in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Congress authorized a programto admit and give financial and other support to some 207,000 people that year. While the numbers have fluctuated with the need and the political atmosphere (they declined sharply after 9/11), they have nonetheless been the most generous in the world until this administration.

President Trump set his sights on eliminating the refugee program early in his tenure: his first executive order purporting to institute a Muslim ban also attempted to stop all refugees from being admitted. While the courts overturned and the administration withdrew the outright ban on Muslims (though its aims have largely been accomplished through other means), refugee resettlement continued, though at a much-reduced pace.

The composition of the refugee flow was telling. In the last year of Obama’s presidency, Muslims and Christian refugees were settled in roughly equal numbers (46 percent from each group), but by 2019, Trump had reduced the numbers of Muslims admitted to 16 percent and increased the percentage of Christians to 79 percent. And for the first time, the administration prioritized those fleeing persecution on the basis of religion in 2020, thereby downgrading race, ethnic group, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group as factors.

The president’s executive order also let state and local governments decide whether or not they would accept refugees for the first time in the program’s history. Only Texas opted out—but the precedent was both ugly and gratuitous as the federal government itself provides direct assistance to refugees through non-governmental organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and International Rescue Committee.

Nonetheless, as the Niskanen report suggests, the program itself could do with some changes to make it more effective, including enhanced community involvement in the resettlement process. The programs should also become more strategic, serving not only U.S. interests but those of our international partners.

But even serving the interests of the government would be an improvement for the program as it currently exists. One of the most disgraceful aspects of the Trump administration’s policy has been the near abandonment of those who have assisted us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria where we abandoned our Kurdish allies in 2018. In 2019, the U.S. admitted only 330 Afghan, 234 Iraqi, and 286 Syrian refugees. There are other ways for those who have specifically aided us to be admitted, but these too fall far short of the need. The Special Immigrant Visa program enacted by Congress to help local translators and others who assisted in Iraq and Afghanistan resettle in the U.S. after our large troop withdrawals in both countries has also been marred by inefficiency as well as lack of enthusiasm from the Trump administration. There is presently a huge backlog of Afghans who have applied for the visas but cannot enter. Given Trump’s suspicion of Muslims who want to live in the U.S. and his shift toward admitting mostly Christian refugees, however, it is doubtful that those who have risked their lives to help us will see that loyalty repaid anytime soon.

The pandemic gives the administration an excuse not to welcome refugees, but even during the pandemic it is possible to limit the risk of spreading disease. But the greater risk to American security is the administration’s hostility to refugees generally (and some refugees more than others). Testing those who would be admitted, enforcing a quarantine on their arrival, and ensuring they follow proper pandemic protocols—even if Trump and his followers routinely ignore them—could allow the United States to continue to offer refuge to those fleeing persecution.

At the very least, the administration should come clean and report to Congress its intentions for admitting refugees next year, and Congress should insist the administration do so before the end of the fiscal year September 30. It’s the law, after all.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a former Reagan White House official and director of the Becoming American Initiative.