Robert J. Natter is a retired U.S. Navy admiral who served as commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces from 2000 to 2003. Mark P. Hertling is a retired lieutenant general who served as commanding general of U.S. Army Europe from 2011 to 2012.
America was founded as a safe haven to persecuted people and a beacon of hope, liberty and freedom to people around the world. Those themes reflect our values, and the welcoming of refugees to our shores is one of our proudest legacies and a fundamental part of who we are as a nation.
As military leaders, we spent nearly four decades defending these values. But today, a core American legacy is at risk, as the Trump administration is reportedly considering issuing severe, unprecedented cuts — potentially even zeroing out — the bipartisan U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the established legal means of entry for these deserving people.
This week, we joined a group of 27 retired generals and admirals — all of whom have been operational leaders in military conflicts and exhibited courage in defending our values on the battlefield — in writing to President Trump expressing grave concerns about the direction of this vital program.
That’s because for many of us, welcoming refugees is not just a matter of smart policy and a reflection of our national values; it is also personal. Many of us know these refugees: They worked for and with us in our fight against terrorists and insurgents. The tangible and significant improvements we were able to make in the lives of millions as well as efforts to protect our own soldiers, sailors and Marines would not have been possible without the dedicated efforts of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, logisticians, engineers and others.
Many of those individuals were targeted because of their assistance to us. They and their families have often been threatened for working with coalition forces, yet they bravely continued in their service at every level from translating conversations at the infantry squad level to contributing to task-force-level diplomatic missions. They may claim different cultures and speak different languages, but they have all put their lives on the line along with our citizens as part of our team.
Many of our partners continue to live in fear, given the continued hazardous situations in various parts of the world. In Iraq alone, more than 100,000 await entry to the United States. We promised our Iraqi partners support and safety when they were shoulder to shoulder with us fighting a despicable enemy. If today we turn these people away, or reduce the numbers who are allowed entry, it will be extremely difficult to ask others to assist us in the future.
Providing safety to people who assist American troops is a core function of our refugee program, but it does not stop there. We are living in a moment of unprecedented global displacement. Of the nearly 26 million refugees across the globe, most are hosted by low- and middle-income countries bordering the unstable areas that people are fleeing. A small proportion of the most vulnerable — less than 5 percent — are selected for resettlement. In addition to humanitarian assistance, resettling refugees is a concrete way that the United States offers support to these countries, while also strengthening regional stability and reducing the risk that people will be forced to return to conflict zones.
We know firsthand that both the humanitarian and strategic consequences of conflicts in Iraq, Syria, the Balkans and East and West Africa would be much worse had neighboring countries closed their borders. We also know that conflicts can restart when refugees are sent home prematurely. Of the 15 largest returns of refugees since 1990, a third have resulted in the resumption of conflict and the slaughter of innocents.
When we slam the door on refugees, we encourage other nations to do the same, contributing to a less compassionate and more dangerous world, one in which our military will increasingly be called to provide stability.
Over the past 40 years, the United States has welcomed about 3 million refugees from around the world who have gone on to contribute to and strengthen this country in immeasurable ways. The average refugee admission level across both Republican and Democratic administrations is 95,000 annually. Yet in the last two years, admissions have plummeted 75 percent.
In the next two weeks, the president will decide how many refugees we will admit in 2020. That decision will determine whether we uphold America’s legacy as a haven for the persecuted, and it will send a powerful message to the world about who we are as a people. We strongly recommend that this lifesaving humanitarian program be restored to historic bipartisan-supported levels.