According to studies released earlier this summer, 2017 marked the first year in almost four decades when the United States took in fewer refugees than the rest of the world. While Washington still accepted more refugees than any single nation, that number dropped to 33,000 from about 97,000 the year before. When counted as a percentage of the nation’s overall population, American admission lagged far behind countries like Canada, Australia and Norway.
Numerous politicians, aid organizations and rights advocates warn that Trump is unraveling the country’s resettlement system. An investigation published this week by Reuters news agency, based on interviews with more than 20 current and former U.S. officials, found that “the administration has rejected internal findings that refugees could be admitted safely and with little expense,” and has frozen out dissenting voices. “Two senior staff members who questioned the administration’s policies were removed from their positions,” the report detailed.
“The administration has instituted opaque and complicated new security vetting procedures that have bogged down admissions and eliminated many candidates for resettlement who would previously have been accepted,” wrote Reuters journalists Yeganeh Torbati and Omar Mohammed. “It has extended the strictest kind of vetting to women as well as men from 11 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. And it has reduced by nearly two-thirds the number of officials conducting refugee interviews, reassigning about 100 of 155 interviewers to handle asylum screenings for people already in the country, including those who crossed the border illegally.”
Such actions are often justified on security or economic grounds, with Trump arguing that immigration imports terrorism and kills American jobs. Using those arguments, he and his lieutenants have tried to crack down legal and illegal migration alike.
But those contentions don’t hold up to much scrutiny. A 2017 report by the Department of Health and Human Services — one the administration tried to suppress — found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenue than they cost to resettle. According to Reuters, White House officials were also dismayed when a review of vetting procedures carried out last year “concluded refugees from all countries could be safely allowed to enter" with a few tweaks to the system. Instead, the administration touted a report claiming that terrorism was heavily linked to immigration; the “misleading” report was later savaged in a court filing by a group of former counterterrorism officials.
“From a purely economic or security perspective, resettlement is not an issue that warrants topping even an immigration skeptic’s priority list," noted a new report from the International Crisis Group. “Resettled refugees tend to be solid contributors to the economy over the medium and long term. They do not come in sufficient numbers (an average of 80,000 annually since 1980) to generate meaningful job competition for existing American workers. And notwithstanding a handful of sensationalized cases and the reality that no form of immigration will ever be zero-risk, the program is too rigorously scrutinized to be a preferred channel for would-be security threats.”
“The Trump administration wants to blame the immigration system for things that happened 15 to 20 years after people flowed through the system,” said Joshua Geltzer, a former National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism, to my colleague Ellen Nakashima. “That’s a radicalization problem. Not an immigration problem.”
Of course, none of this is likely to matter to Trump or his allies. Their opposition to immigration is about ideology and identity rather than policy — something that’s neatly illustrated by the data on refugees resettled in the United States under Trump.
Reuters observed that the percentage of resettled refugees who were Muslim was a third of what its was two years ago; the percentage who are Europeans tripled. “Refugees admitted to the United States from the small European country of Moldova, for example, now outnumber those from Syria by three to one, although the number of Syrian refugees worldwide outnumbers the total population of Moldova,” Reuters noted.
It’s not hard to infer what’s at work here. Trump is, after all, the man who declared he wanted more immigrants from “Norway” rather than “sh--hole” countries outside of Europe. His cheerleaders in right-wing media have already started to shift the goal posts well beyond matters of refugees or migrants, challenging, instead, the core premise that diversity is America’s strength.
But former government officials argue that Trump is needlessly squandering a bipartisan tradition of reaching out to refugees that stretches back to the Cold War. “We evacuated Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, took in Soviet Jews in the 1980s, airlifted Kosovars fleeing genocide in the 1990s, admitted thousands of Sudanese ‘Lost Boys’ orphaned by war in this century,” wrote Ariana Berengaut and Anthony Blinken in the New York Times. “In each instance, we sent an important signal to the world — and so goaded governments into action, undermined the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders and defended religious freedom.”
Now, with Trump turning his back, many in the international community worry that other governments could follow suit, leaving poorer countries in the developing world to bear the brunt of refugee crises in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. “If that sharing diminishes,” U.N. refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi told reporters last year, “my humanitarian negotiating power diminishes as well.” That ebbing of influence may prove to be one of the more stark legacies of the Trump presidency.
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