Amid the political hurricane around Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and the actual storm devastating North Carolina, Donald Trump’s administration struck a significant blow to the nation’s refugee program this week that garnered far less attention. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced that the U.S. would reduce the cap on its refugee program to a new low of 30,000 people in 2019. This is the second such reduction by the administration. In 2017, this year’s limit was reduced from 110,000 to 45,000, and only about 20,000 people have so far actually been admitted. By comparison, in the last year of President Barack Obama’s tenure, the U.S. admitted more than 80,000 refugees.
In his speech justifying the dramatic cut, Pompeo claimed that the U.S. has a “longstanding record of [being] the most generous nation in the world when it comes to protection-based immigration and assistance”—a questionable claim—and went on to announce the new and far lower cap, which he attempted to justify “in consideration of both U.S. national security interest and the urgent need to restore integrity to our overwhelmed asylum system.” Pompeo put a positive spin on the dramatic reduction, saying, “The improved refugee policy of this administration serves the national interest of the United States,” without explaining how. He ended his speech by pompously claiming, “We are, and continue to be, the most generous nation in the world.”
A day later, apparently in response to a letter by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin stating that the president needs to consult Congress when making such changes, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the 30,000 figure Pompeo had announced was only a proposal.
But whether or not Trump obtains congressional permission to reset refugee limits, he is doing so by fiat, and quietly through internal changes. Melissa Keaney, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, explained to me in an interview that the discretionary destruction of the refugee program is essentially a backdoor implementation of Trump’s “Muslim ban.” “For individuals from these Muslim-majority countries that have been targeted through the latest version of the Muslim ban—[they] are feeling the worst repercussions. Their numbers are 98 percent worse than they were under the Obama administration,” she said.
A recent Reuters investigation found that the government has slowly whittled away the program “through procedural changes made largely out of public view” and that “the administration has reshaped the U.S. refugee program, slashing overall admissions and all but halting entry for some of the world’s most persecuted people, including Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Somalis.” The administration has done so in various ways, including through reassigning the staff of the Refugee Assistance Program. For example, Reuters reports, “it has reduced by nearly two-thirds the number of officials conducting refugee interviews.” As a result, the Reuters investigation found that only “251 Somali refugees have been resettled in America this year, a 97 percent drop from the 8,300 admitted by this point in 2016.”
Additionally, the Trump administration’s national security justification for cutting the refugee program’s scope is not based in fact. Trump’s executive order implementing his Muslim ban after his inauguration triggered a review of the existing refugee resettlement program. According to Reuters, “the review concluded that refugees from all countries could safely be allowed to enter with some tightening of vetting, according to seven current or former U.S. officials who helped formulate or were briefed on the findings.” However, “White House staff, including [Stephen] Miller and [John] Kelly, were not happy with that conclusion.” So Trump and his cohorts ignored the results of their own review and spun a “national security” imperative out of thin air to implement what they wanted to do all along: curtail the entry of brown-skinned foreigners, and especially Muslims.
Keaney’s organization, the NILC, is involved with three different lawsuits against the administration over the unfair and discriminatory application of the refugee resettlement process. “All the plaintiffs in our current lawsuit challenging this refugee ban have waited years,” she said. “They’ve gone through all the hurdles and hoops that they have to undergo in terms of medical screenings, security screenings,” all of which take years. Many of the NILC’s plaintiffs had reached the very last step of the United States’ extremely stringent vetting process before being allowed entry when Trump took office—and quickly shattered their families’ dreams of being reunited. Although the NILC won a preliminary injunction against the suspension of the refugee program, none of its plaintiffs has been admitted into the country so far. To Keaney, this is a clear indication of “the corruption that we’re seeing under this administration, an administration that believes itself to be above the law.”
Pompeo’s claim that the U.S. is the most generous country in the world is also hollow. The top five nations where refugees end up living are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia. These nations have smaller populations than the U.S., so the proportional burden on the state is even higher. The U.S. then accepts so-called resettlements of refugees from such countries where they have been granted asylum. The U.S. program for resettling refugees peaked in 2016, when it was the world’s most generous, probably as a result of receiving a higher number of applications as the global refugee crisis began exploding. But after Trump slashed the program, Canada is now outpacing the U.S. in the number of people being admitted. Canada’s population is one-tenth of the United States’.
At the same time that the U.S. is dramatically scaling back its refugee program, the global refugee crisis continues to grow. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are 25 million refugees worldwide. The majority are from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan—three nations where the U.S. has interfered. The U.S. has bombed Syria on a semi-regular basis under the guise of the “war on terror,” and Afghanistan continues to be the site of the United States’ longest official war.
In his speech, Pompeo made no mention of how our country’s wars fuel the refugee crisis, nor did he mention the government’s own review of the refugee program that contradicts the administration’s assertion and policy.
Ultimately, the slow death of the United States’ refugee program must be seen as part of the larger project promoted by Stephen Miller and his ilk to foster the whitening of America. According to Reuters, “Refugees admitted to the United States from the small European country of Moldova, for example, now outnumber those from Syria by three to one, although the number of Syrian refugees worldwide outnumbers the total population of Moldova.” Because national security is not an issue, according to the government’s own internal review, the only other reason to suppress the number of refugees being resettled in the U.S.—and to do so disproportionately against Muslim refugees—is to pander to the racist elements of Trump’s political base and to realize his and his staff’s white supremacist views.