Last month, as part of an annual exercise to set the number of refugees who can come to the U.S., the Trump Administration proposed a cap of 18,000 in fiscal year 2020. This number, far below the 30,000 refugees who were admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year, which ended September 30, is the lowest ever under the Refugee Act of 1980, continuing the downward spiral under Trump’s tenure.
The Administration tries to justify this retreat from core American values — offering protection to the world’s most vulnerable — through a series of half-truths and irrelevant assertions. I know, because I served as the head of the Refugee Affairs Division at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2018, working as a career official in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
We’ve heard the President disparage family-based “chain migration,” which allows families to reunify through the immigration system, and vow to end the diversity visa program, which provides visas to people from countries with low immigration rates. Now he’s targeting refugees in his war against legal immigration. Instead of candidly acknowledging this, however, his administration offers up a series of transparent excuses.
1. The Administration argues that overseas refugee resettlement needs to be low because domestic asylum claims are high. When he announced the new refugee ceiling, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan cited the need to deal with the crisis at the southern border and to reduce the asylum backlog as reasons for the decision. This is a smokescreen: in fact, the government can handle both. There are approximately 40,000 refugees overseas already approved by DHS, who are subject to rigorous security checks and health screenings before they can travel to the U.S. These 40,000 “pipeline” cases could still travel to the U.S. over the next 12 months.
2. The Administration asserts that it is taking foreign policy into account, as if past administrations did not. Nonsense. Every administration has considered refugees’ humanitarian needs in the context of foreign policy and national security interests. Just a glance at the nationalities that have been prioritized over time — Vietnamese, Cubans and Iraqis (to name a few) — clearly illustrates the foreign policy dimension. The Administration also argues that we should prioritize assistance to refugees overseas in lieu of resettlement. This is misleading. Even at recent high-water marks for resettlement worldwide, 99% of refugees remain in host countries close to home, with monetary support from donors including the U.S. Voluntary return by refugees to their homelands is much desired, but rarely achieved at significant scale. The Trump policy simply leaves stranded the most vulnerable one-half of 1% of refugees who used to be identified for resettlement to the U.S. — including people with medical needs, survivors of torture and those who are not safe in their country of first asylum.
BY BARBARA STRACK for TIME
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