The Darkening City on the Hill: The Trump Administration Heightens Its Assault on Refugee Protection

By: Donald M. Kerwin

December 11, 2019

Responding to: Religion and Refugee Resettlement: The American Context

The Darkening City on the Hill: The Trump Administration Heightens Its Assault on Refugee Protection

On September 26, 2019, the White House released two long-feared decrees on the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Its Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement requires that both states and localities consent to the resettlement of refugees in a particular jurisdiction. If either fails to consent, “refugees should not be resettled within that State or locality,” except in very narrow circumstances that include prior notification of the president. States can now bar refugee resettlement, for example, in cities that have been revitalized by refugees and that badly want and need them. How will this process work in practice? The governor and either the mayor or county commissioner must affirmatively consent to resettlement. In cases where it is not clear which official needs to consent, federal officials have directed non-profit resettlement programs to “figure it out.” Moreover, these short-staffed programs have a very short window of time (roughly two months) to secure consent from every state and local government where refugees might be resettled.

The executive order purports to ensure that “refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force.” Yet coordination already occurs in the form of quarterly meetings with a laundry list of public officials and community stakeholders, and through many less formal vehicles. Diminished resettlement opportunities and evisceration of the program (not integration) seem to be the order’s purpose and will likely be its result. To that end, the number of local resettlement programs has nosedived from 325 to 220 during the Trump administration. This number is expected to fall even more precipitously in the upcoming year. That said, the administration may be surprised to learn in the upcoming weeks just how important refugees have been to many U.S. communities and the extraordinary successes and contributions of these populations over time. 

Also on September 26, the administration released the annual Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 and announced its decision to limit refugee admissions to 18,000 in FY 2020, the lowest number in the 40-year history of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The Refugee Council USA explained the implications of this decision as follows:

This decision is unprecedented, cruel, and contrary to American humanitarian values and strategic interests. Historically, the United States has been the global leader on refugee resettlement, setting an average refugee admissions goal of 95,000 people annually. To slam the door on persecuted people while the number of refugees displaced globally continues to rise to historic levels upends decades of bipartisan tradition. It also abandons thousands of refugees in need of resettlement, leaving them in precarious, often life-threatening situations.

Since that announcement, the administration placed a two-week moratorium on refugee arrivals: One week is customary at the start of the fiscal year. The additional week required the cancellation and rebooking of flights for more than 500 refugees, including unaccompanied children. The administration subsequently extended the admissions moratorium two more times into early November. 

The administration’s rationale for historically low admissions is specious. It praises the nation’s commitment to its other protection programs, which make it “the most compassionate and generous nation in history.” Yet the administration has systematically sought to weaken the U.S. asylum system and each of its “temporary and permanent protection” programs, including for torture survivors, victims of trafficking, and child migrants. The United States now seems poised to become the global leader not in refugee protection, but in refugee shunning and exclusionary nationalism.

The Report to Congress for FY 2020 also argues that the “current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees.” Yet as Susan Martin has argued, the United States has historically been able to meet significant demands on its asylum system and to resettle substantial numbers of refugees from abroad. In the early 1980s, for example, it received and settled 125,000 Cubans and many thousands of Haitians who had reached Florida’s shores. It also resettled more than 207,000 refugees in 1980 and nearly 160,000 in 1981. By FY 1994, it faced a backlog of more than 425,000 pending asylum applications, but it still resettled 113,000 refugees in 1994 and nearly 100,000 in 1995. Martin writes that the administration is either “far less competent than its predecessors in managing complex movements of people” or, more likely, “it is using asylum as a thinly veiled excuse to reduce overall immigration admissions.” 

Refugees have been remarkably successful in the United States without the administration’s disingenuous “reforms.” A 2018 study by the Center for Migration Studies compared 1.1 million resettled refugees who arrived between 1987 and 2016, non-refugees, the foreign born, and the total U.S. population. It found that the labor force participation (68%) and employment rates (64%) of the 1.1 million refugees exceeded those of the total U.S. population (63 and 60%), which consists mostly of U.S. citizens. Refugees with the longest tenure (who arrived between 1987 and 1996) had integrated more fully than recent arrivals (from 2007 to 2016), as measured by: households with mortgages (41 to 19%); English language proficiency (75 to 55%); naturalization rates (89 to 24%); college education (66 to 32%); labor force participation (68 to 61%); employment (66 to 55%); and, self-employment (14 to 4%). Finally, the study found that refugees who arrived between 1987 and 1996 exceeded the total U.S. population in median personal income ($28,000 to $23,000), homeownership (41 to 37%) and many other metrics of success.

The administration’s policies raise the question: Why does the United States offer protection to refugees and asylum-seekers at all? In passing the Refugee Act of 1980, which established USRAP and harmonized U.S. asylum standards with international law, Congress recognized “the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands,” and it encouraged “all nations to provide assistance and resettlement opportunities to refugees to the fullest extent possible.” For decades, there has been a bipartisan consensus that saving lives—as the U.S. refugee program undeniably does—reflects U.S. ideals and projects them to the world. Refugees themselves speak quite powerfully to how the program allowed them to start their lives over in the United States and how its very existence offers hope to persons in desperate situations in camps and urban settings. These refugees do not threaten or burden the nation: They renew it by exemplifying core U.S. values, such as courage, endurance, and a core commitment to freedom. Robust refugee protection policies, the consensus held, serve the nation’s interests in global stability, diminished irregular migration, and increased cooperation on U.S. diplomatic, military, and security priorities. The program has also saved countless persons who risked their lives to work for and on behalf of the U.S. government. 

In his January 11, 1989 farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan spoke of the United States as a nation that had always stood as a beacon of freedom to the world’s refugees, but that this identity needed to be “rediscovered.” It needs to be rediscovered now as well—and before the Trump administration succeeds in fully dismantling one of the nation’s defining and proudest programs.

Editor's note: This post is adapted from an essay of the same name originally published by the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

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