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Donald Trump wants the US to take in Syrian refugees. Wait, what?

When Hungary's prime minister said that Syrian refugees crossing into the country would make Europeans "a minority in their own continent," the Washington Post labeled him "Europe's Donald Trump." So you'd expect the original Donald Trump would share those views. But you would be wrong. Donald Trump thinks the US should let in at least some Syrian refugees.

"You know, there’s a lot of security risks with it. But, something has to be done. It’s an unbelievable humanitarian problem," Trump told Bill O'Reilly on Tuesday, according to Breitbart News. O'Reilly asked if Trump objected to people fleeing the Middle East and North Africa for the US; Trump replied, "I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis, with what’s happening, you have to."

One small problem for Donald Trump: The people he's calling for the US to let in now are the same ones his campaign's immigration platform requires the US to keep out. Only a month after Trump released his immigration proposal, he's already trying to find loopholes in it.

Trump's immigration platform would dismantle US refugee policy

In the immigration proposal Trump revealed in August, admitting refugees into the US isn't characterized as a humanitarian necessity. It's an "expensive program" that is rife with abuse — and it lets in "people bent on causing us harm."

Trump doesn't call for the US to stop admitting refugees entirely, at least not in so many words. But he does say that the US needs to "increase [its] standards." The strictness of the existing standards — particularly when it comes to forcing refugees to prove they aren't terrorists — is a big reason the US has only let in 1,500 or so refugees over the course of the Syrian civil war. It's hard to imagine that the US would be able to admit more Syrian refugees under a tighter set of standards.

More importantly, though, Trump wants to make it impossible for any immigrants to enter the US — for any reason — who can't "certify that they can pay for their own housing, healthcare and other needs." As I've pointed out, this restriction already exists for most legal immigrants entering the US. The exception is for refugees and people receiving asylum; if you're fleeing life-threatening persecution, the government understands you might not have had the opportunity to attend college or develop professional skills — and, "on a humanitarian basis," the US accepts you anyway.

lebanon syrian refugees

Probably not qualified for full-time middle-class employment. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

As a result, three-quarters of refugees and asylees in the US are on food stamps — and Trump's platform explicitly points this out as a bad thing. He wants that money (and other "expensive refugee programs" that help refugees get settled) redirected to a "refugee program for American children."

It's very difficult to imagine that Syrian refugees living in a camp in Jordan or Turkey will have the kind of cash on hand that would allow them to afford housing, health care, and food the minute they arrive in the US, much less to be able to "certify" that they could afford these things.

The US has often used refugee policy to send a message about foreign policy


The bottom line from Trump's point of view is that the Syrian civil war is Barack Obama's fault to begin with: "This was started by President Obama, when he didn’t go in and do the job when he should have, when he drew the line in the sand, which turned out to be a very artificial line," Trump told O'Reilly. The implication: It's terrible that the US has to take in refugees, but because of President Obama, that's what has to happen.

By saying that, Trump's lining up with a longstanding US tradition of using refugee policy as a way to send a message about foreign policy, particularly as a way to designate which regimes are so evil that the US should take (or should have taken) action against them.

Under Ronald Reagan, in particular, the US welcomed Central Americans fleeing communist regimes in countries like Nicaragua — but when opponents of the US-backed regime in El Salvador tried to flee to the US, they were rejected as "economic migrants." (Alternatively, just look at the US's "wet foot, dry foot" policy toward Cuba, which basically amounts to open borders for anyone who can make it to shore.)

This sort of flexibility is why most politicians avoid hard-line policies

There are so many different interests to weigh when it comes to immigration policy: the well-being of people in other countries who want to come to the US versus the US's diplomatic relationships with those countries; the need to provide a haven for people fleeing atrocities versus the desire to keep out people who'll be "public charges" by living off welfare; the need to work quickly to save refugee lives versus the need to check carefully that no one "bent on causing us harm" is getting admitted.

These are extremely difficult dilemmas to navigate, and even harder to discuss in campaign-friendly layman's terms. But most politicians can talk about them — at least generally — by distinguishing between the "good immigrants" the US wants to let in and the "bad immigrants" it wants to keep out.

Donald Trump doesn't have that option because he is staking his presidential campaign on skepticism and hostility toward immigrants as a whole. That's the lesson of his campaign proposal, and it's exactly the message his base wants to hear.

As Trump has just learned, though, the problem with hard-line positions is that sometimes you really want to make an exception. And that's actually how the US has been doing immigration policy for decades. But it's exactly the approach that Trump and his supporters dislike.

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