Michael Chertoff, U.S. homeland security secretary from 2005 to 2009, is executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management advisory firm.
President Trump will make another decision this month that will affect thousands of people: How many refugees will the United States admit in fiscal year 2018?
The president already cut refugee admissions by more than half this year, from more than 100,000 down to 50,000. By way of comparison, the highest ceiling under President Ronald Reagan was 140,000. The president has also signaled, through his executive orders and in his budget proposal, that these cuts will carry over to next year. And in fact, some in his administration are trying to convince him to cut even further.
This would be a mistake. Cutting refugee admittances would not only be a moral failure but also damage our national interest abroad and our economy.
Of course, security is an imperative, and the refugee resettlement program is secure. U.S. security and intelligence agencies conduct multiple reviews on every refugee admitted, and only those approved for admission by the Department of Homeland Security are granted refuge in the United States.
There is also the humanitarian imperative: We are in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis on record, with more than 22 million people seeking safety from violence, conflict and persecution all over the world. The vast majority of refugees — nearly 90 percent — are hosted by poor and middle-income countries. Only the most vulnerable — those whose safety cannot be assured in their countries of first refuge — are selected for resettlement. For these refugees — widowed women; orphaned children; survivors of rape, torture and brutal religious persecution — refugee resettlement is a lifeline.
But what’s in it for the United States?
Strategic allies located near crises host the largest refugee populations in the world. Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Kenya are among the top refugee-hosting states. Their willingness to host millions of refugees contributes greatly to regional stability and security, all in regions where U.S. troops are deployed. As our military works to contain terrorist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Horn of Africa, forcing refugees to return to unsafe and unstable countries would make countering terrorism more difficult.
That’s why in 2016, when the Kenyan government threatened to close the Dadaab refugee camp and forcibly return more than 250,000 Somalis to an unstable Somalia, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry got on a plane to Kenya. It’s also why the United States should be concerned that more than 700,000 Afghan registered and unregistered refugees have been returned to Afghanistan since 2016 — a threefold increase from 2015 — at a time when growing instability in Afghanistan and terrorist gains are forcing an increase in U.S. troop levels.
If we’re not willing to do our fair share, how can we ask front-line allies to do more?
Maintaining resettlement commitments is also critical to our military, diplomatic and intelligence operations abroad. Tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan nationals have put their lives on the line to support intelligence-gathering, operations planning and other essential services. Terrorist groups openly target these individuals because of their cooperation with Americans. Resettlement is instrumental to ensuring their safety — a testament to the U.S. military’s commitment to leave no one behind on the battlefield.
And in a proud American tradition, Republican and Democratic presidents have used refugee admissions to signal support for those who reject ideologies antithetical to U.S. values. In the past few decades, we have raised our admissions ceilings to take in those fleeing communist uprisings, religious persecution and tyranny.
Today, the United States must provide unwavering support for Muslims who put their lives at risk to reject terrorist ideologies, many of whom refused to join or be conscripted into terrorist groups, militias and state security forces persecuting their fellow citizens. The Islamic State considers all those who flee its rule as heretics subject to execution. Those who risk their lives — and their children’s lives — to reject terrorism must know, as a matter of our fight against extremism, that the United States supports and welcomes them.
Even in the wake of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history, President George W. Bush deliberately and explicitly maintained a refugee admissions ceiling of 70,000 annually, affirming the United States’ great humanitarian tradition.
Finally, refugees enrich and are deeply supported by our communities. Hundreds of mayors, faith leaders and business leaders have attested to the contributions refugees make. Thousands of Americans donate volunteer hours, in-kind goods and services, and private dollars to support refugees. One study estimates only 39 percent of the costs of resettlement are covered by federal dollars.
Despite being among the most vulnerable and destitute when they arrive, refugees thrive. Entrepreneurship among refugees is nearly 50 percent higher than among U.S.-born populations, creating jobs for Americans. More than 57 percent of them are homeowners.
Our values and our national security interests argue for raising our refugee ceiling, not lowering it. The president should seize the mantle of Reagan and fortify U.S. leadership on refugees.