The Trump administration is reportedly considering allowing even fewer refugees — or even none at all — into the US next year, another potential blow to the US’s already decimated refugee program.
Reuters reported Thursday, citing a senior administration official, that officials are weighing several options: delaying some or all refugee admissions until a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order curbing refugee resettlement is resolved, deepening cuts to refugee admissions, or both.
But the coronavirus pandemic has only made the plight of the world’s most vulnerable populations more urgent. There are now more refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people today than at any time since World War II, and those numbers are only growing given ongoing crises in Hong Kong, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries.
“Given the magnitude of this crisis, the United States must not abandon our leadership role in providing safety to refugees who are most in need of resettlement,” House and Senate Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to the administration on Wednesday. “Surely we can do more when it comes to helping refugees.”
Under Trump’s executive order, which he issued in September 2019, local governments that do not have the resources to support refugees in becoming “self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance” would be able to turn them away. Courts have prevented that executive order from going into effect for now, but it’s possible that the case could eventually make its way to the US Supreme Court — meaning that a resolution could still be months away.
Administration officials are facing an October 1 deadline to confer with members of Congress over what the refugee admissions cap should be for the next fiscal year, as required by law. Last year, however, the administration didn’t hold that meeting until October 5 and it wasn’t until November 1 that it announced the new cap, which was set at 18,000 — the lowest since the refugee program was created in 1980 and down from 110,000 when Trump took office.
That delay resulted in a one-month halt to admissions that left many refugees who were already in the resettlement pipeline stranded abroad. Combined with a five-month pause on refugee resettlement amid the pandemic, that has meant that the administration has only resettled 9,474 refugees this fiscal year as of September 4.
Democrats fear that the same scenario could play out again this year. Despite the fact that they have repeatedly requested a meeting to discuss the cap, the administration hasn’t scheduled one, let alone sent its proposed refugee admissions plan to Congress.
Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee, has pledged to take in up to 125,000 refugees in the year after he takes office and increase admissions “commensurate with our responsibility, our values and the unprecedented global need.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) voiced her support for that agenda in a press call on Thursday, saying: “I’m hopeful that come January, we will have a new administration that recognizes the value and importance of refugees, and the value and importance of the United States leadership in welcoming these individuals to our country — in the United States standing for freedom, once again being a beacon of hope and freedom around the world.”
In the meantime, refugee advocates are pushing the administration to adopt at least a 95,000 cap on refugee admissions, the average annual resettlement goal before Trump took office. According to Reuters, however, the administration is planning to further cut the refugee program.
The refugee program has historically flourished under Republican presidents. Even in previous Republican administrations seeking to curtail immigration, no one has ever set the cap on refugee admissions as low as Trump has. Former President George W. Bush briefly cut the number of refugees admitted after the 9/11 attacks, but even then the limit was set at 70,000.
But the bipartisan consensus on maintaining a robust refugee resettlement program began to unravel after the Paris terror attacks in late 2015, said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate for Refugees International, when suicide bombers — reportedly sanctioned by the Islamic State — killed 130 civilians in explosions and mass shootings throughout the city.
There was speculation that one of the attackers was a refugee, one of 5.6 million Syrians who have been displaced since 2011 by the still-ongoing civil war. It was later confirmed that all of the perpetrators were citizens of the European Union. But the rumors were enough to spark a panic about Syrian refugees and start a movement at the state level to cut back US admissions of Syrian refugees and resettlement efforts more broadly.
Governors from 31 states, all Republican but for New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, said in 2015 that they no longer wanted their state to take in Syrian refugees. In 2016, Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, also tried to prevent refugee resettlement agencies in his state from getting reimbursed for the cost of providing social services to Syrian refugees.
But states didn’t have the legal authority to simply refuse refugees; that’s the prerogative of the federal government. Pence ultimately had to back down after a federal court ruled against his decision to withhold the reimbursements.
Trump, then campaigning for president, stirred up more fear, suggesting that Syrian refugees were raising an army to launch an attack on the US and promising that all of them would be “going back” if he won the election. He said that he would tell Syrian children to their faces that they could not come to the US, speculating that they could be a “Trojan horse.”
When Trump eventually took office, he delivered on his promise to slash refugee admissions from Syria, suspending refugee admissions altogether from January to October 2017. From October 2017 to October 2018, the US admitted only 62.
State leaders lined up behind him: The Tennessee legislature, for instance, filed a lawsuit in March 2017 claiming that the federal government was infringing on states’ rights by forcing them to take in refugees (a court challenge that also failed).
And after Trump issued his executive order in 2019, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state would no longer resettle refugees. (The state hasn’t been able to block refugees so far amid pending court challenges to the executive order.)
If Trump’s executive order is permitted to go into effect, it’s not clear how it would play out in practice. States won’t just be able to refuse refugees from certain nations, such as Syria, Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell Law, said. Immigration law provides that state and local governments must provide aid “without regard to race, religion, nationality, sex or political opinion.”
But it could prove complicated when states and municipalities disagree over whether to accept refugees. It’s possible that states will be able to override local governments. Take, for example, cities like Dallas, which has historically taken in many refugees but is located in Texas, which has sought to reject them.
The executive order would also create inconsistent refugee policies across the country, making it next to impossible for the federal government to properly plan for refugee settlement, Schacher said.
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