A group of prominent foreign policy experts on Monday called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to keep the office responsible for managing refugee inflows a part of the State Department instead of moving it to the Department of Homeland Security.
Last month, a leaked memo showed the administration contemplating a relocation of the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration. Such a change, says a letter signed by 58 former diplomats and national security advisers, would adversely shift the bureau’s focus from humanitarian and policy concerns to solely security issues.
“We are convinced that the elimination of PRM’s assistance functions would have profound and negative implications for the Secretary of State’s capacity to influence policy issues of key concern to the United States,” the letter states. “It would also be ironic, as this is one of the bureaus at State that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support over many years.”
The signatories include former officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations, as well executives from numerous religious and humanitarian organizations that work with newly arrived refugees.
Among them are William J. Burns, a former ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration; Dennis Ross, a former director of policy planning for the State Department under President George H.W. Bush; and Daniel Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Egypt under President Bill Clinton and to Israel under President George W. Bush.
Currently, refugee admissions span multiple agencies, but the State Department takes the lead.
The leaked memo said moving management responsibilities for refugees to DHS would “enable processing efficiencies” and is consistent with President Trump’s emphasis on border security and adequate vetting of people who enter the country.
It is not clear if the proposal is under serious consideration, or whether Congress would go along with it.
Trump dropped the number of refugees permitted into the United States this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000, a cap that was reached last week. Potential refugees are vetted by DHS, a process that can take a year and a half or more.
After a Supreme Court ruling last month on the president’s travel ban, the State Department established new rules for visa applicants and refugees from six predominantly Muslim countries, including a requirement that all refugees have a “close” family relationship in the United States. Trump has not yet set a new cap on refugees for next year.
Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International who helped organize the letter sent to Tillerson, said DHS plays an important role in security screening. But he said it does not focus on foreign policy considerations, such as support for host countries where refugees are awaiting admissions and encouraging other nations to take in more displaced people.
“You could transfer folks from the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Defense to DHS for the requisite expertise,” Schwartz said. “But the problem is the mandates of those departments are very different.”