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How to Save the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program

By International Crisis Group

Amid the largest displacement crisis since World War II, President Donald Trump’s administration has cut the U.S.’s annual intake of refugees in half. It should reverse course, and future administrations should strive to put refugee admissions on a stronger political and operational footing.

What’s new? Through various forms of bureaucratic strangulation, the Trump administration is working to squeeze the life from a program that has helped resettle three million refugees in the U.S. since 1980.

Why does it matter? The current administration’s hostile approach is slashing the world’s resettlement capacity, leaving more displaced people stuck in overburdened host countries next to war zones, and hobbling a tool that the U.S. has used to help manage the prospect of instability in those countries.

What should be done? The Trump administration should set a refugee ceiling within range of the historical norm and work to reach it. Proponents of resettlement should hold the administration to reasonable goals. Future administrations will need to take steps to put resettlement on a more sustainable political and operational footing.

Executive Summary
At a time when long-running conflicts are driving global refugee numbers to record levels, the U.S. is stepping back from its traditional role as the mainstay of global refugee resettlement. President Donald Trump’s administration has cut the country’s annual intake of refugees by more than half, and is hobbling the U.S. refugee resettlement program through a combination of politically motivated suspensions, expanding requirements and malign neglect. This policy is both wrong and wrongheaded. The U.S. administration should stop throwing obstacles in the way of its own resettlement operations, set an admissions ceiling within range of past levels and put its weight behind reaching it.

Some countries – like Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda – have borne much of the burden of the 21st century’s enormous refugee flows because they border conflict zones. Recently, Germany and Sweden decided for a period of time to admit very significant numbers of asylum seekers who flooded their borders during the Syrian refugee crisis. By comparison, the number of refugees resettled every year – in other words, given the chance to relocate from the countries where they first found refuge to receiving states where they will start whole new lives – is relatively tiny. Historically, very few countries have had the capacity and the political will to reach out and offer to resettle refugees from far-off regions. But even if the numbers are always small, and well short of what the UN recommends, resettlement can be an important tool. It helps remove refugees from places where they could be the spark for igniting violence, provide an extra level of protection to the especially vulnerable and find homes for waves of migrants denied asylum in the region from which they come. The U.S. is by far the largest country engaging in refugee resettlement. It cannot shirk its commitment without badly eroding global capacity.

Having run for president on an anti-immigration platform, President Trump has approached cutting refugee admissions like the fulfilment of a campaign promise.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe the White House will heed this call. Having run for president on a deeply anti-immigration platform – and having taken specific aim at Syrian refugee resettlement during his campaign – President Trump has approached cutting refugee admissions like the fulfilment of a campaign promise. Certainly the anti-immigration hardliners who have been managing the president’s policy on refugee resettlement – led by his senior adviser Stephen Miller – have worked with campaign-like intensity to hurt the program. The administration has planted hardliners in the agency offices responsible for resettlement, reassigned long-term professionals who make the program run, imposed dilatory suspensions and burdensome new requirements, suppressed reasonable arguments in support of the program, and amplified misleading statistics that denigrate it.

The contrast with prior administrations is jarring. For decades, the U.S. commitment to refugee resettlement was a point of pride for administrations of both the Republican and Democratic parties, who saw it as serving both strategic and humanitarian interests – whether in providing refuge to Hungarian dissidents, Indochinese boat people, Soviet Jewry, Sudanese orphans or Kosovar victims of ethnic cleansing. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations sought to keep the program strong even when post-11 September 2001 laws and security protocols threatened to strangle it in red tape.

While one would expect a restrictionist administration like President Trump’s to take a very different approach to immigration than its predecessors, the hard focus on refugee resettlement is nevertheless revealing. From a purely economic or security perspective, resettlement is not an issue that warrants topping even an immigration sceptic’s priority list. Resettled refugees tend to be solid contributors to the economy over the medium and long term. They do not come in sufficient numbers (an average of 80,000 annually since 1980) to generate meaningful job competition for existing American workers. And notwithstanding a handful of sensationalised cases and the reality that no form of immigration will ever be zero-risk, the program is too rigorously scrutinised to be a preferred channel for would-be security threats.

But the opinion leaders who now shape the White House immigration agenda are not consumed exclusively with narrow economic and security concerns. They are also driven by a view that the ethnic and cultural diversification brought about by the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act – which ended a national-origin quota that encouraged migration by northern and western Europeans (and discouraged nearly everyone else) – has changed America for the worse. President Trump’s own comments pining for higher migration from Norway, and vulgarly disparaging global south countries, are of a piece with this agenda. It is this anti-diversity logic through which the administration’s hardline approach to refugee resettlement should also be viewed.

Not everyone inside the U.S. government fully shares the animus against resettlement, however. In 2018, career civil servants fought internal battles to counter falsehoods and half-truths being peddled by immigration hardliners inside the administration. This year, the Department of Defense is reportedly playing a lead role, arguing both for a respectable ceiling that is consistent with U.S. wealth, capacity and humanitarian traditions, and advocating for the admission of Iraqis who placed their lives at risk helping the U.S. armed forces. Outside pressure from all corners – Congress, the press and civil society – strengthens the hand of those who fight for resettlement from the inside at the same time as it can help stop meritless arguments advanced by opponents from settling into received wisdom.

At the same time, it is important to look toward the future, and how an administration committed to resettlement might put the program on a stronger, more sustainable footing. One key objective should be to shore up political and popular support. During the Cold War, political elites supported resettlement as a mechanism for embarrassing the Soviet bloc and bringing anti-communist defectors into the U.S. The disappearance of that grand strategic rationale has made resettlement more politically vulnerable. Thus, when the executive branch wishes to resettle a group of refugees whom, rightly or wrongly, Congress and the public regard as posing a particular security risk, it must bend over backwards to prepare the ground with Congress and explain how it is protecting the American people. Congress and the public react poorly to sudden changes in policy, as President Barack Obama’s administration learned the hard way during the Syrian refugee crisis.

The other key point is operational. Even before the Trump administration layered on new requirements, administering the resettlement program had become absurdly cumbersome. The vetting process for refugees has been aptly compared to a Lego house – a haphazard jumble of often ill-fitting, sometimes redundant pieces. Reviewing the entire security check process to eliminate duplication, appointing a senior civil servant to oversee it and bringing together in a single location officers from different agencies who play a role in the refugee vetting process could make it much more efficient and effective. These steps could help the U.S. reinvigorate its resettlement efforts amid a global displacement crisis that shows no sign of abating.

Washington/Brussels, 12 September 2018