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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

In a letter Sunday, dozens of former diplomats encouraged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to keep the U.S.'s refugee office at the State Department, instead of sending it to the Department of Homeland Security. (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Former Diplomats Urge Tillerson to Keep Refugee Office Where It Belongs

Letter to Secretary of State cautions against putting crucial mission in hands of DHS

Jessica Corbett

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, more than 50 former U.S. diplomats and foreign policy experts urged the secretary to reject a White House proposal to transfer the government's official refugee office out of the State Department.

"Refugee issues are rooted in international politics and diplomacy, which are the key concerns of the Department of State and U.S. foreign policy."
—Letter to Rex Tillerson
The letter, dated Sunday, responds to an official White House memo—the details of which were leaked to CNN—that includes proposals to relocate the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs to the Department of Homeland Security.

As Tillerson and the administration consider this possible reorganization, world leaders are struggling to address a global refugee crisis. The United Nations Human Rights Council estimates there are currently 22.5 million refugees, and more than half of them are children. At least 55 percent of refugees are fleeing wars in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria.

The proposals also come at a time when the Trump administration is embroiled in a legal battle over a travel ban that targets people from six Muslim-majority countries. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments against the ban in the fall, but allowed part of it to take effect late last month. The United Nations has warned that if Trump's Muslim Ban stays in place, it will only exacerbate the refugee crisis.

Among the key concerns expressed in the letter to Tillerson are potential threats to the U.S.'s diplomatic influence, as well as perceptions that DHS would not be able to effectively navigate the issue.

Noting U.S. leadership in global humanitarian and diplomatic organizations, the letter states:

Displacement needs become key issues of concern for U.S. counterparts during bilateral discussions on issues relating to politics and security, and it is critical that the Secretary of State have at his or her disposal both the expertise and resources from within the Department that PRM provides…. 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 acknowledges that DHS has a major role to play in the refugee crisis—namely, vetting those who seek to enter the U.S., for safety reasons—but also notes, "DHS has neither the international staffing infrastructure nor the expertise to identify refugee groups in need of protection or resettlement, nor to understand the diplomatic consequences or opportunities to leverage resettlement for U.S. foreign policy interests."

Signatories of the letter have served under recent Democratic and Republican presidents, and emphasized that their concerns with the possible reorganization transcend partisan politics.

"Refugee issues are rooted in international politics and diplomacy, which are the key concerns of the Department of State and U.S. foreign policy," the letter states, adding, "This is unambiguously reflected in the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which provides the authority for assistance programs that are now overseen by PRM and have enjoyed strong bipartisan support over many years."

In addition to Tillerson, key members of Congress also received the letter, Politico reports:

The letter also was sent to Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as well as Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). They are the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Committees of Foreign Relations and Appropriations subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

 Read the full letter here.

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