But last fall, as part of its dubiously legal crusade against foreigners, the Trump administration took two major actions to dismantle the entire system.
First, it ratcheted down the annual U.S. refugee admissions ceiling, to an all-time low of 18,000. (For context, the last Obama-era ceiling was 110,000.) Its other major change, however, got less attention — even though it might end up inflicting much lasting damage.
This one came through an executive order from the White House that said “states and localities” get to veto the placement of refugees within their borders. Actually, it offered something more powerful than a veto. These jurisdictions now have to affirmatively opt in to the program and provide “written consents.” If public officials don’t send a letter to the State Department in time — that is, if they merely remain silent — no new refugees will be placed there.
If you ignore the (somewhat inconvenient) fact that this appears to violate federal immigration law, perhaps this policy sounds reasonable.
After all, by and large, the local communities that have historically been major destinations for refugees have willingly and enthusiastically asked the feds to keep sending them families. They’ve seen firsthand the “mutually beneficial impact” of refugee resettlement, as the mayor of Fort Worth put it recently.
Fort Worth is a conservative Texas city, with a Republican mayor, in a county that voted handily for President Trump. And yet it’s hardly alone among deep-red jurisdictions in welcoming refugees. These communities, like their liberal counterparts, have over the decades developed deep networks of employers, faith leaders and congregants who work with refugees. Most of the official resettlement agencies, after all, are religion-affiliated, and many of their contacts view “welcoming the stranger” as an expression of their faith.
These communities have also witnessed the contributions that refugees make to local economies.
Study after study — including one commissioned and then buried by the Trump administration — has found that refugees are an economic and fiscal net-positive. That is, they ultimately contribute more in taxes than they receive in public services. Sure, many refugees arrive destitute and initially require substantial help. But over time, their high levels of employment and entrepreneurship allow them to move up the economic ladder.
But here’s the problem, or at least one of the problems, with this executive order: While many local areas are happily asking for more refugees, they still need their state governors to sign off.
And not all have.
So far, about 40 governors, including more than a dozen Republicans, have done so. Some have faced significant pushback and have offered impassioned explanations for why accepting refugees is consistent with their personal values and their states’ economic interests. For instance, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, spoke movingly about his wife’s work with Kurdish refugee women whose husbands had been killed after serving as translators for the U.S. military.
But — presumably just as the administration hoped — several big red states have held out.
Among them is Texas, which for years has been among the leading recipients of refugees. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who several years ago tried to (illegally) keep Syrian refugees out of Texas, has remained silent. This is despite the fact that the leaders of every major Texas city have said they want to continue receiving refugees, and despite the fact that opting out of the program would cost the state millions of dollars in economic activity next year.
Resettlement agencies have until Jan. 21 to submit their proposals for where they will place refugees when the next government contract begins. If a court injunction doesn’t come in time, and if places such as Texas stay silent, these agencies will have to close even more of their local offices. They will also have to resettle people in places further from the family and community networks best suited to help them integrate in their new homes.
Maybe a new administration will eventually reverse the policy. That would be nice. But by then, the networks of churches, synagogues, volunteers, employers and others who both benefit and benefit from these valuable Americans-to-be will have fallen apart.
Which was surely the goal all along.