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America is stepping down as a global leader on refugees

Trump’s cuts to the refugee program signal the end of an era.

A boy walks carrying packages of humanitarian aid.
A boy walks carrying packages of humanitarian aid at al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria on July 22, 2019.
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The United States’ refugee program once served as a global model of how a powerful country should support the world’s most vulnerable people. But under President Donald Trump, America is now accepting fewer refugees than ever, signaling that not even they are immune to the president’s restrictionist immigration policies.

On Thursday, the administration announced that the US will accept 18,000 refugees at most over the next year, the fewest in history and down from a cap of 110,000 just two years ago. A new executive order from Trump will allow state and local authorities to block refugees from settling in their areas.

The Trump administration claims that lowering refugee admissions would allow the US to take in more asylum seekers: people fleeing violence and persecution who apply for protection when they are already in the US, unlike refugees, who are processed by international organizations.

But the administration is also doing everything it can to keep asylum seekers out of the US. Migrants can be returned to Mexico to await decisions on their asylum applications, barred from obtaining asylum if they passed through another country before arriving in the US, or sent back to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to seek protections there.

During his campaign, Trump painted refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war as national security threats. In office, his administration hasn’t distinguished among asylum-seekers, refugees, and other migrants. It’s painted them all as a threat to or drain on American society and has crafted policies that try to keep as many people out of the US as possible.

The Trump administration is setting up the admission of refugees and asylum seekers as a “zero-sum game.” But in reality, it’s just trying to block immigration across the board, said Elizabeth Foydel, deputy police director at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

The US has the capacity to take in both more refugees and more asylum seekers. But the Trump administration is sending a message: The US is no longer the same safe haven it once was. The policies are in line with acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli’s amendment to Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet.”

During the campaign, Trump helped stoke anti-refugee sentiment

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 among governors, mostly Republicans, 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 they no longer wanted their state to take in Syrian refugees. In 2016, Mike Pence, then 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.”

“Military tactics are very interesting,” Trump said. “This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe. Or if they sent 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 ... That could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible.”

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).

Trump’s executive order Thursday may vindicate the states that wanted to turn refugees away. (The International Refugee Assistance Project said it is contemplating challenging the order in court.) Under the executive order, local governments that do not have the resources to support refugees in becoming “self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance” will be able to turn them away.

It’s not clear how it will 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 previously sought to prohibit 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.

“We are one nation,” she said. “The idea that governors can direct where refugees can first resettle not only undermines federalism but divides us on a policy which is fundamentally a national one.”

Trump’s refugee policy reflects his broader attitude toward immigrants

The Center of Immigration Studies (CIS), which advocates for lowering immigration levels overall, has influenced many of the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies. The refugee cap is no exception.

The organization has gained influence in the Trump era, with some of its former researchers assuming senior positions in the administration. CIS threw support behind the movement to block Syrian refugees in 2016, casting doubt on whether the United Nations’ refugee office could actually vet them for security threats before they arrive in the US.

The organization has also claimed that the current system allows the federal government to impose too much financial burden on states to carry out refugee resettlement. And it has called into question why the US should dedicate resources to resettling refugees rather than focusing on the southern border.

Trump’s most recent refugee policy moves are “long overdue,” in particular his executive order allowing states the opportunity to refuse refugees, CIS senior researcher Nayla Rush writes.

“Refugees are not just parachuted into a void,” she said. “Positive reception and orientation are, therefore, necessary for a successful integration.”

It all fits in with one of the broader ideas guiding Trump’s immigration policy: that immigrants “exploit public assistance” without offering the US anything in return, Foydel said.

In the same vein, the Trump administration has published a rule, set to go into effect October 15, that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to weigh certain immigrants’ use of Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing assistance, and federally subsidized housing against them in their applications for green cards or visas. The rule will primarily affect a small proportion of family-based green card applicants, but immigrants are already disenrolling from public benefits out of fear that they will be penalized.

Trump has justified it as a means of ensuring that immigrants are “financially self-sufficient” and to “protect benefits for American citizens.”

“I am tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things,” Trump said when announcing the rule. “So I think we’re doing it right.”

Foydel said that Trump is trying to abdicate federal responsibility for the most vulnerable immigrants, forcing states that already serve as immigrant “sanctuaries” to step up. He threatened to release detained immigrants into sanctuary cities in April, and Thursday’s executive order also requires states that agree to receive refugees to publish their “consent letters” publicly, which some have questioned as a means of politically targeting immigrant-friendly areas.

“The positions of different states might be politicized and used to foment anti-refugee sentiment,” Schacher said.

It’s a mischaracterization to say that immigrants take advantage of welfare programs, Foydel said.

In her experience, refugees have no desire to be on public assistance for any longer than necessary and start working as soon as they can. She also pointed to research that refugees end up contributing more in taxes than what it costs to resettle them: on average, $21,000 among refugees who entered the US as adults between 2010 and 2014, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“I think that there are a number of policies we’ve seen that have this language of economic self-sufficiency,” Foydel said. “It’s part of a false narrative about refugees and also immigrants more broadly exploiting public assistance when the data says it’s not true.”

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