Refugee Resettlement Is Close to Collapse. That Was Trump’s Plan.

Refugee Resettlement Is Close to Collapse. That Was Trump’s Plan.

Originally Published in The New York Times

Jessica Goudeau - July 27, 2020

Its targeted destruction is too important to ignore.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has almost always viewed itself as a leader in resettling refugees forced to flee their homes around the world. But in just three years, President Trump has reduced the flow of refugees to a trickle.

Resettlement in the United States occurred through a series of ad hoc policies until 1980, when the Refugee Act, which passed with unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate and was signed into law by Jimmy Carter, established a bipartisan, internationally cooperative, public-private program housed at the State Department. The statute became the basis for the successful resettlement of more than three million refugees escaping violence and persecution.

The country can take pride in that sustained humanitarianism, which has also made the United States stronger.

But within a week of taking the oath of office, President Trump made it clear that his administration would be aggressively targeting refugee resettlement.

His first executive order, in January 2017, indefinitely suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees, froze resettlement admissions and barred entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Later that year, Mr. Trump announced that he was capping refugee admissions at 45,000, — less than half of the 110,000 the year before under President Barack Obama. It was the first time that the ceiling was below 67,000.

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group to enter the United States. In addition to a screening by the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, the federal government conducts its own vetting process involving multiple law enforcement, national security and intelligence agencies, including fingerprint and biometric security checks, as well as medical screenings. The entire process can take more than two years.

Human rights advocates have consistently pushed for more admissions and greater assistance. Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, calls the process “a costly solution to a nonproblem.”

“Since 2001, the United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, failed to process tens of thousands of cases and added years to refugee processing to subject refugees to an ever-growing security apparatus which is both opaque and unfair,” he told me.

In the 40 years since the program was established, no refugee who has entered the country through the resettlement program has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States. Significantly more refugees have been turned away than admitted every year — even before the historically low caps.

Advocates like Mr. Hetfield know what the program can offer people who have endured the trauma of war. Marwa Al Ibrahim, a refugee from Iraq, now works as the integration program supervisor at Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth.

Ms. Al Ibrahim worked as a translator for a French news agency in Baghdad. Her family was targeted in a car bombing that nearly killed her father. After the attack, the family applied for refugee status in 2008. In 2014, they were finally resettled in Fort Worth. Resettlement gave them a chance to be safe at last.

An entire ecosystem works together to support refugees like Ms. Al Ibrahim. Resettlement agencies partner with faith communities, volunteer networks, hospitals and employers in cities all over the country, to provide them with basic needs like housing, medical care and job skills. They help with immigration and legal services, cultural orientation, and trauma-informed mental health care. It is the unlikeliest thing — a bureaucratic program laced with good will and hope.

Yet the Trump administration has used every tool in its arsenal to slow or stop resettlement: bureaucratic, rhetorical, political and financial. In other areas where it has tried to limit immigration — like ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the administration met at least some opposition and limitations.

But when it comes to resettlement, it has been extraordinarily successful, bringing the program to the edge of collapse.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that nearly 80 million people were displaced globally in 2019. Of course, it’s not only up to the United States to resettle refugees — in 2018, 25 countries worked with the U.N. refugee agency to receive placements.

Of the growing number of displaced people, over 1 million are eligible for refugee resettlement in 2021. But the Trump administration slashed the admissions ceiling in fiscal year 2020 to only 18,000; as of July 7, according to Church World Service, only 7,544 refugees had actually been admitted.

The pandemic has deepened the plight of people fleeing conflict and persecution. And yet, citing risks of infection from foreigners, the U.S. government has indefinitely effectively sealed the country off to migrants seeking protection.

If elected, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has pledged to end the “vile Muslim ban” on his first day in office. He plans to set the admissions cap at 125,000 refugees and “raise it over time commensurate with our responsibility, our values and the unprecedented global need.”

The Trump administration’s destruction of the refugee resettlement program is too important to ignore. I keep thinking of the Syrian artist in Idlib Province who painted a mural of George Floyd in June. It was especially poignant to see support for the Black Lives Matter movement coming out of Idlib, the last region of Syria where rebels resist Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syrians are still barred from entering the United States.

Refugee resettlement will not survive another four years under this administration. The loss of this program would have major ramifications for America’s international relationships, not to mention the thousands of people seeking refuge. If the nation’s reckoning with race is a mirror into its ideals on justice and equality, then refugee resettlement is the testing ground for our ideals.


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