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Making America Crueler Again: Trump's Ugly New Anti-Immigrant Wave

The White House targets refugees, green card applicants, and poor immigrants.

The latest Trump administration assaults on refugees and immigrants should shock the conscience. (Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The latest Trump administration assaults on refugees and immigrants should shock the conscience. (Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On September 26th, President Donald Trump's White House announced that, in 2020, refugee admissions to the United States will be limited to 18,000, drastically lower than any yearly ceiling over the past 40 years. Along with that announcement, the White House released a separate executive order intended to upend many years of precedent by giving state and local authorities the power to deny refugees resettlement in their jurisdictions.

Nine days later, Trump issued another directive ordering that new immigrant visas be restricted to those who can afford unsubsidized health insurance coverage or are affluent enough to pay for their own health-care costs. Meanwhile, his administration was heading into the final days of a planned timetable to implement new restrictions that would make it harder for needy immigrants to get a green card and work legally to support themselves and their families. That plan has been thwarted, at least temporarily, by orders from judges in three different federal courts.

Those separate but related actions are the latest pages in another dark chapter in the Trump administration's anti-immigration binge. Together, they steer the U.S. government onto an even more heartless course, setting policies that will not just harm people directly covered by the new provisions but will cause significant collateral damage.

In addition to keeping many more desperate people out of this country, the refugee cutback will harm organizations that help refugees already here and destroy Washington's ability to persuade other countries to deal with the worldwide tidal wave of refugees displaced by wars and other catastrophes.

The local option to prevent resettlement will stir up anti-immigrant groups and inflame the national immigration debate, making that issue and the country's racial divides even more toxic than they already are. In addition to keeping many more desperate people out of this country, the refugee cutback will harm organizations that help refugees already here and destroy Washington's ability to persuade other countries to deal with the worldwide tidal wave of refugees displaced by wars and other catastrophes.

The new green card rules, if they overcome court challenges and go into effect, will greatly expand the grounds for finding that an applicant might become a "public charge." That will deny legal employment to many of the most vulnerable immigrants and lead others to forgo badly needed benefits to which they are legally entitled—a trend already evident before those rules even take effect. Similarly, the new requirement that immigrants be capable of paying for health insurance will not just penalize foreign nationals applying for visas, but in many cases keep family members already in the U.S., including children and spouses, from reuniting with loved ones seeking to join them.

These policies have one more thing in common: none of them has anything to do with illegal immigration.

Refugees hoping for resettlement in the United States are not only seeking to enter the country legally but doing so through the most rigorous and time-consuming of all procedures for getting a visa. Those already here who could be excluded from a state or locality under the new regulations are lawfully in the country, not part of an "invasion" (as Trump calls it) of undocumented immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. Immigrants applying for green cards or visa applicants subject to the health insurance requirement are within the law by definition.

The New Refugee Ban, Town By Town

The "local option" giving state and local governments the right to block the resettlement of newly admitted refugees in their territory has been the least noticed of these new initiatives so far. It has, however, the potential for far-reaching, troubling, even dangerous effects. If the plan survives the expected court challenges and resettlement organizations have to get written approval from state and local authorities before placing new arrivals in specific locations, that could mobilize anti-immigrant activists across the country to put pressure on local officials, intensifying the politicization of refugee issues and galvanizing ugly forces in this society.

The heads of two of the nine national organizations that administer the resettlement program for the State Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement have been blunt in their criticism of the local option policy. It "shocks the conscience," the Reverend John McCullough, CEO and president of Church World Service, declared in a statement. "This proposal would embolden racist officials to deprive refugees of their rights under U.S. law. This proposal is a slippery slope that takes our country backward. The ugly history of institutionalized segregation comes to mind."

In a similar vein, Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), described the order as "in effect, a state-by-state, city-by-city refugee ban, and it's un-American and wrong. Is this the kind of America we want to live in? Where local towns can put up signs that say 'No Refugees Allowed' and the federal government will back that?"

Details are still vague on how the local option program would work. Trump's order calls for the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to develop the lineaments of such a process within 90 days, so details may be forthcoming. On the essential points, though, its wording makes the order's intent unequivocally clear.

A key passage states that resettlement agencies will have to get written permission from state and local authorities before placing any refugees in their jurisdiction; the burden, that is, will be on the agencies to get approval, not on local or state leaders to initiate an objection. In a curious provision, the document adds that the secretary of state "shall publicly release any written consents of States and localities to resettlement of refugees." A decision to exclude refugees, however, can remain undisclosed.

Only President Trump and his advisers know whether the primary motive for such requirements was to make resettling refugees more politically fraught and potentially a more visible issue in the coming election season. But that is sure to be the result.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), is troubled by the prospect that the decisions of local authorities will only be publicized if they accept refugees, not if they refuse them—a twist that may tend to "stoke xenophobia," she pointed out in an interview, and make it harder for communities to welcome refugees.

Matthew Soerens, who directs World Relief's efforts to mobilize evangelical churches on refugee and immigration issues, voiced a similar concern. Mandating a public announcement when a jurisdiction decides to accept refugees will draw the attention of "people who maybe don't want their state or local government receiving them," Soerens said in an interview. Even if 70% of the people in a community support resettlement and only 30% object, "they can make an ugly political issue," he added, possibly increasing the difficulty of bringing refugees into a community even when the authorities are in favor of resettling them. "We don't want refugees to come into a situation where there's been a big political circus about their arrival," he added. Most residents may be welcoming, but "it only takes a few to make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe."

Church World Service, HIAS, LIRS, and World Relief are four of nine national resettlement agencies. Six of them are faith-based. All nine have strongly criticized the new refugee ceiling as cruel, contrary to religious teachings of love and compassion, and against American values. ("Trump Puts Out Lady Liberty's Torch" was the headline over the Church World Service's statement.)

Worldwide Refugees at a Record High, U.S. Relief at an Unprecedented Low

The unanimous criticism from those resettlement agencies reflects how deeply Trump's latest decision will cut into future refugee relief efforts. The new ceiling of 18,000 represents less than one-fifth of the 95,000 yearly cap presidents have set, on average, since the present refugee law was enacted in 1980. Actual admissions, normally somewhat lower than the maximum allowed, are now guaranteed to fall far below the average annual rate over an even longer period dating back to the 1940s.

The number of Muslim refugees, in particular, has dropped in a stunning fashion since Donald Trump entered the White House, even though, as a recent study notes, four of the world's five largest refugee crises affect Muslim populations. That report, compiled by the Refugee Council USA, highlights how startling the change was for the most deeply troubled countries between the last two fiscal years of Obama's presidency, 2016 and 2017, and the first two full fiscal years of Trump's, 2018 and 2019.

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The report's country-by-country figures show that refugee admissions from Iran dropped from 6,327 in 2016 and 2017 to 104 in 2018 and 2019. Admissions from Iraq—where the waiting list still includes thousands of Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government or military after the American invasion and occupation of that country—fell from 16,766 to 308, a 98% drop. For Somalia, the number went from 15,150 to 284; for Sudan, from 2,438 to 201; and for Syria, from 19,473 to 280. Altogether, the Refugee Council found that admissions of Muslim refugees had declined by 90% in the Trump era.

Hurting Refugees—And Those Who Help Them, Too

The cut in admissions doesn't just harm refugees waiting to come to the United States but hurts those already here and the people who help them. Because the State Department gives the resettlement agencies a fixed amount of money for each individual they resettle, the sharp drop in admissions has meant deep cuts in their budgets. That, in turn, reduces their ability to help new arrivals fit into American society after their initial government-funded 90-day refugee benefits run out.

Since 2017, according to the Refugee Council study, the nine national agencies combined have closed 51 branch offices across the country. That means they can no longer help refugees in those communities find jobs or offer them language training or legal services, or assist them in enrolling children in school or obtaining public benefits they are lawfully entitled to.

If the rollercoaster keeps going downhill, says Krish Vignarajah of LIRS, it could destroy the network her organization has created in its 80-year history: "If we lose that infrastructure built over decades by faith communities, nonprofits, and local communities, that is going to take a very long time to replace."

World Relief's Soerens said his agency has closed seven offices since 2017, while halting refugee resettlement in several others, losing "really gifted, committed staff who have years and decades of experience." When possible, World Relief and similar agencies have tried to close down branches in places where other resettlement agencies are still operating, but, of course, those agencies are now stretched to the limit as well. 

Trump's policies alsodamage the international response to the growing global refugee crisis. In sharp contradiction to the spirit of the 1980 Refugee Act, which states that "it is the policy of the United States to encourage all nations to provide assistance and resettlement opportunities to refugees to the fullest extent possible," American influence under Trump has moved in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of providing moral leadership for international efforts to meet the crisis, his example has encouraged governments and political forces across the world that strongly resist more generous efforts. As a result, tens or hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees will be trapped in their suffering for years longer, waiting for relief that may never come.

Raising the "Public Charge" Barrier

Another recent Trump initiative will potentially mean new hardships for a different category of immigrants who, like resettled refugees, are in the U.S. legally: non-citizens seeking the right to legal employment who may, in some cases, be subject to deportation if they can't work.

That group, which includes many who are related to, or share households with, U.S. citizens, will face new barriers under a revised "public charge" rule that was scheduled to take effect this month until it was delayed by judicial rulings in three federal district courts. In those orders, handed down just four days before the October 15th effective date, federal judges in New York and Washington state temporarily blocked the rule nationwide, while a more limited ruling in California stayed its implementation in that state as well as in Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, which were plaintiffs in the same lawsuit.

The new rule is aimed at making it tougher for green-card applicants to show that they will not be dependent on public benefits. Its weight would fall entirely on those in the applicant pool who are already the most needy and vulnerable. Women, children, the ill, and the elderly will be disproportionately affected, as will immigrants from poorer countries (who are also more likely to belong to racial minorities). Within those already disadvantaged groups, the poorer and more vulnerable someone is, the more likely she is to suffer adverse consequences.

That non-citizens should be denied permanent residence if they are "deemed likely" to depend on government benefits is a long-standing provision in U.S. immigration law, not a Trump-era invention. For many years, though, the "public charge" label was applied only to those receiving cash assistance through welfare, Social Security disability payments, or government-funded long-term institutional care. Under the new rules, immigrants seeking a green card or temporary employment status would be penalized for using—or just being judged likely to use—a long list of other benefits including food stamps, most Medicaid services, and various housing assistance programs, which were not previously held to define the recipient as a public charge.

Limited use of one of those benefits would not automatically disqualify an applicant, but would count as a "heavily weighted negative factor." Low income, defined as less than 125% of the federal poverty guideline, would be another "heavily weighted" negative. Health and age could also count against an applicant.

Practically speaking, someone lawfully here could be sent home not only for using public benefits but simply for being more than 61 years old or having "a medical condition that is likely to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization or that will interfere with the alien's ability to provide care for himself or herself, to attend school, or to work." Presumably, this means that someone legally in the U.S. who is blind or has some other physical disability would face a greater risk of deportation. Women would be at a significant disadvantage, an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute showed, because "they are less likely to be employed than men, generally live in larger households, and have lower incomes."

A side effect of the new rules (noticeable since a draft was released more than a year ago) is that significant numbers of immigrants are now going without assistance to which they are legally entitled. Multiple studies have documented declining enrollments even in programs not covered in the new regulations or when benefits are going to the U.S.-born children of immigrants who are unquestionably eligible for them.

For example, the Agriculture Department's special nutrition program for women, infants, and children, known as WIC, is explicitly excluded from the list of "benefits designated for consideration in public charge inadmissibility determinations." But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation fact sheet reports that WIC agencies in a number of states have experienced "enrollment drops that they attribute largely to fears about public charge." Investigations by the Urban Institute, Children's Health Watch, and other organizations have found the same pattern in other programs.

A Last Thought

Taken as a whole, the latest Trump administration assaults on refugees and immigrants should shock the conscience—the words the Church World Service's John McCullough used about the new local-option resettlement policy. Legally, they are not high crimes and misdemeanors as that phrase appears in the Constitution. In moral terms, though, it would not be an exaggeration to call them high crimes and misdemeanors against humanity. By any reasonable standard they are more morally repugnant and bring more suffering to more innocent people than any presidential phone call to Ukraine.

In Trumpian terms, think of it as MACA, or Making America Crueler Again—and again, and again. Closing the country's doors to more refugees (particularly if they're Muslim), encouraging bigots and xenophobes to mobilize to keep refugees out of their towns, making it harder for immigrants to stay and build new lives if they are old or poor or sick, raising a barrier of fear that keeps them away from food aid and health care they and their children need and have a right to—none of these are impeachable offenses. In a fairer and more humane country, perhaps they would be.

Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs, a journalist, and writer based in Maryland has written widely on refugee and immigration issues. He is the author of From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America and two books relating to the Vietnam war. His website is www.arnoldisaacs.net.

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