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The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Is an Unsuitable Target
January 2017

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Is an Unsuitable Target

Syrians NickOza IRC
Nick Oza/IRC

The  executive order signed last week by President Trump that cuts the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program by more than half and halts it altogether for 120 days has chosen a singularly unsuitable target for its stated purpose of “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Entry into the United States by Foreign Nationals.” No refugee who has entered the United States through the resettlement program—and more than 3 million have done so since 1980 when the program was established—has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States.

In the early days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, ultimately determined to have been carried out by foreign nationals who had entered the country legally as visitors or students, the refugee resettlement program was suspended for two months. The number of refugee places was not cut, although new security procedures meant that the ceiling for admissions was not reached in fiscal year 2002 or for several years thereafter. But the lower numbers were a byproduct of new security protocols, not a deliberate policy to reduce refugee admissions. The moderate but highly effective approach to national security post-9/11 was made after the worst terrorist attack in U. S. history, in which nearly 3,000 people died. President Trump’s order, meant to give U.S. officials the opportunity to review the resettlement program’s application and adjudication process, is more responsive to political than national-security considerations.

The executive order provides that refugee admissions may be resumed after 120 days for nationals of countries for whom the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence “have jointly determined such additional procedures are adequate to ensure the security and welfare of the United States.” But the executive order indefinitely halts admission of one of the most vulnerable groups in the world: Syrian refugees. Resumption of Syrian admissions will require the President’s personal approval, unlike lifting the 120-day halt in refugee admissions.

Singling out the refugee resettlement program for restriction and cuts seems to be a matter of expedience. It is one of the few immigration programs that the executive branch controls completely, although Congress must be consulted on the number to be admitted and ultimately appropriates the funds to keep the program running. Refugees awaiting admission to the United States are out of sight and for most of the American public out of mind. They cannot vote, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they are outside the protection of U.S. refugee law.

The indefinite ban on Syrian refugees is particularly inappropriate. The President offered no explanation of his proclamation “that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The small Syrian-born community in the United States is well integrated, with household income at about the same level as native-born Americans. They are more likely than natives to hold a college degree. Today Syrians are the largest refugee population in the world, with some 5 million displaced by war and persecution, most living in subsistence conditions in the surrounding countries: 2.8 million in Turkey, 1 million in tiny Lebanon, about 655,000 in Jordan, and hundreds of thousands additionally in Iraq and Egypt. Nearly 900,000 entered Europe to seek asylum in 2015-16. By contrast, the United States has admitted 19,344 Syrian refugees since 2011. Canada, with one-tenth the U.S. population, has resettled about 40,000 Syrian refugees and, like the United States, has encountered no security threats as a result.

The lives of Syrian refugees, like those of most other refugees, are precarious in the countries of first asylum, which are themselves struggling to meet the needs of their own people. Most refugees struggle to find ways to feed their families, live in crowded and substandard shelters, and have no path to permanent residence. One million Syrian children are estimated to be out of school, often for many years. They and their families have fled violence and extremism in Syria, given up homes and possessions to save themselves, seen their communities destroyed, and have now been in limbo for up to six years. The reason for refugee resettlement programs is to enable people whose lives have been on hold for years—sometimes decades—to begin to return to normalcy.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program has long been the largest in the world and a pillar of U.S. global leadership in humanitarian issues. It will be difficult for other, much smaller countries to fill the void if the United States maintains its dramatic cuts in admissions or continues to refuse refugees. U.S. leadership on refugee issues conveys a hard-to-measure soft-power advantage by painting the country as a generous and welcoming home for law-abiding people of all faiths and origins. But it also has a hard-power function, helping to relieve political pressure on countries of first asylum, including U.S. allies such as Jordan, whose stability is vital to U.S. national interests. The United States’ willingness to share the responsibility of providing solutions for refugees sends an important signal to allies and adversaries alike that U.S. policy stands firmly against persecution on the grounds of race, religion, national origin, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion—in the words of U. S. and international refugee law.

The public outcry and legal challenges to the executive order began immediately after it was issued, and some elements have been softened. It is possible that with continuing pressure, the administration will change course, and the executive order includes the means to do so.  After 120 days, President Trump could make a finding that new procedures put in place by his administration are adequate to protect America and thus refugee admissions can resume (this of course could be done simply by affirming the current tough clearance procedures). This allows the President to appear strong and generous, getting the benefit of a symbolic gesture to protect the American people and allowing refugees in once he has determined that all is safe. But it is possible that new vetting procedures could be so onerous that the number of refugees admitted would remain very low. Or officials could decide that no procedures are good enough, and leave a de facto ban in place.

Refugees already are the most heavily vetted of any people who enter the United States, facing an 18- to 24-month processing period. They go through a vetting procedure that involves up to eight U.S. government agencies, six different security databases, five separate background checks, four biometric security checks, three separate in-person interviews, and two interagency security reviews. Singling refugees out by halting the refugee resettlement program for four months and cutting resettlement at a time of record global displacement is a classic case of blaming the victim. It will do nothing to make America safer.

Kathleen Newland is Co-Founder and Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. T. Alexander Aleinikoff, former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, is Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School and is an MPI Senior Fellow.