Refugee skeptic lands top State Department refugee job

Refugee skeptic lands top State Department refugee job


Originally published by Politico

A White House aide close to senior policy adviser Stephen Miller who has advocated strict limits on immigration into the U.S. has been selected for a top State Department post overseeing refugee admissions, according to current and former officials.

Andrew Veprek’s appointment as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) is alarming pro-immigration activists who fear that President Donald Trump is trying to effectively end the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Current and former officials also describe Veprek’s appointment as a blow to an already-embattled refugee bureau. Trump has made clear his disdain for liberal immigration policies, and the bureau has been adrift under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — even as a record 65 million people are displaced around the world because of war, famine and other calamities.

The bureau’s website says it “provides aid and sustainable solutions for refugees, victims of conflict and stateless people around the world, through repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in the United States.” It adds that the bureau “also promotes the United States’ population and migration policies.”

Veprek is a Foreign Service officer detailed to the White House, which listed him as an “immigration adviser” in a 2017 staff document. He has worked closely there with Miller and the Domestic Policy Council, according to a current State official and a former one in touch with people still serving in the department. A former U.S. official also confirmed the appointment.

In interagency debates, some administration officials have viewed Veprek as representing Miller’s hard-line views about limiting entry into the U.S. for refugees and other immigrants.

Veprek played an influential role in Trump administration’s December withdrawal from international talks on a nonbinding global pact on migration issues. He also argued in favor of dramatically lowering the nation’s annual cap on refugee admissions, the current and former officials said.

 “He was Stephen Miller’s vehicle,” the former State official said. The current official predicted that some PRM officials could resign in protest over Veprek’s appointment.

“My experience is that he strongly believes that fewer refugees should admitted into the United States and that international migration is something to be stopped, not managed,” the former U.S. official said, adding that Veprek’s views about refugees and migrants were impassioned to the point of seeming “vindictive.”

Veprek’s appointment as a deputy assistant secretary is unusual given his relatively low Foreign Service rank, the former and current State officials said, and raises questions about his qualifications. Such a position typically does not require Senate confirmation.

“On the positive side, one would hope that an appointee with limited experience would come into the job with a willingness to learn from professionals who have decades upon decades of experience,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former assistant secretary of state for the PRM bureau.

He added, however, that he was “deeply concerned” given Veprek’s relationship with Miller and the Domestic Policy Council.

The White House referred questions to the State Department. A State Department spokesperson confirmed Veprek’s new role and, while not describing his rank, stressed that Veprek comes to PRM “with more than 16 years in the Foreign Service and experience working on refugee and migration issues.”

Veprek did not respond to emails seeking comment.

In his final years in office, as the scale of the global migration crisis became increasingly clear, former President Barack Obama raised the number of refugees the U.S. was willing to accept annually to 110,000 from 70,000. The Trump administration, however, lowered that cap to 45,000 a year. In reality, the pace of refugee admissions under Trump has slowed down so much that fewer than half that number of refugees are expected to be resettled in the U.S.

An International Rescue Committee analysis found that the number of Muslim refugees in particular has fallen under Trump. While in fiscal 2017 around 48 percent of refugees admitted to the U.S. were Muslim, on Trump it’s on track to being 13 percent, according to an IRC report in late January. During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims being allowed to enter the United States.

Refugee advocates were especially perplexed by Trump’s decision to back out of United Nations-led talks on a global compact on dealing with migrant flows. Trump aides said the agreement would undermine U.S. sovereignty. Refugee supporters said the U.S. was giving up its ability to influence a nonbinding deal.

The U.S. has yet to abandon global talks on a separate compact that deals more narrowly with refugees, a category of migrants generally given special protection under international law. However, the larger migration pact is likely to still affect refugee policies.

The current State official said there’s actually a sense of relief in international quarters that Trump aides are not participating in the migration pact talks.

“Now the world can move on and create a compact, and in time the United States will sign on to it,” the official said. “The Trump aides just are so unsophisticated and so naïve that they got played.”

The PRM bureau, like several other bureaus at the State Department, does not yet have an assistant secretary to lead it. People familiar with the bureau say the morale among its employees has sunk to unusually low levels as top officials have left or been reassigned and amid the anti-refugee messages emanating from the White House. But initial worries that Tillerson would scrap the bureau completely have faded, at least for now, as the secretary has scaled back plans to restructure the department.

For many years, the U.S. refugee program had strong bipartisan support. Lawmakers viewed it as an example of America’s generosity and a way to garner global goodwill. But that changed during the 2016 presidential campaign after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, which came as Europe was dealing with a huge inflow of Syrian refugees.

Trump and other Republican presidential candidates began casting refugees as a potential source of terrorism. Democrats argued that refugees were heavily screened before being allowed to migrate to the U.S. and that instances of terrorism connected to refugees were vanishingly few.


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