Trump’s Huge Mistake on Refugees

His administration is considering another extreme reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

By Ariana A. Berengaut and Antony J. Blinken,

The New York Times, September 11, 2018

(Ms. Berengaut and Mr. Blinken worked at the State Department in the Obama administration.)

A demonstrator last year in New York protesting President Trump’s policies on refugees. His administration is now weighing another cut in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

When President Bashar al-Assad’s forces swept into the southwestern Syrian region of Dara’a this summer, American diplomats scrambled to save the lives of a few hundred besieged civil defense workers known as the White Helmets.

The White Helmets, who were carpenters, bakers, doctors and engineers before the war, have shown extraordinary bravery pulling civilians from the rubble of Mr. Assad’s barrel bombs and documenting his depravities. They became prime targets of the regime and its Russian backers.

Rescuing the rescuers hinged on securing written promises from Western countries to resettle them. American diplomats looked everywhere but at their own country: The Trump administration had all but shut the doors of the United States to refugees.

It may be about to get worse. Mr. Trump is considering another extreme cut in the number of refugees legally allowed into the United States. Already, his administration lowered the cap for 2018 by more than half, to 45,000 — the smallest number in the four-decade history of our modern refugee program. The administration also took actions that make it more difficult to secure a slot: It imposed a temporary refugee ban, put in place draconian, ill-defined vetting procedures and placed immigration hard-liners like Stephen Miller in charge.

The administration also buried a government study establishing the economic value of accepting refugees and falsely claimed they threaten our security.

The result has been a huge drop in the number of refugees actually admitted into the United States. We are on pace to bring in just 21,000 this year, compared with 85,000 in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Simply put, Mr. Trump is strangling the refugee admissions program to death.

Destroying our bipartisan tradition of refugee resettlement goes against the American value of extending a lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable. And it’s economic malpractice: Refugees return more in taxes than they receive in benefits, revitalize towns whose best days seemed behind them and enrich the United States with new energy, ideas and businesses.

The refugee program is also an important tool of American foreign policy and has enhanced our global standing and security. We evacuated Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, took in Soviet Jews in the 1980s, airlifted Kosovars fleeing genocide in the 1990s, admitted thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” orphaned by war in this century. In each instance, we sent an important signal to the world — and so goaded governments into action, undermined the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders and defended religious freedom.

The United States long resettled more refugees a year than every other country combined. That gave us global leverage. American leadership helped increase the number of countries formally admitting refugees to a record 37 in 2016, from 14 in 2005. That same year, the Obama administration rallied other nations to double admissions worldwide.

The Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility has contributed to a 48 percent drop in global resettlement from 2016 to 2017. Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency forecasts an even steeper decline this year. As Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, put it, if the American share of refugee resettlement diminishes, “my humanitarian negotiating power diminishes as well.”

Last year, Mr. Trump tried to justify a retreat on refugees by suggesting that American assistance alone is sufficient. But the administration also sought to slash humanitarian aid by 44 percent in its first budget and by 32 percent in its second.

In August, the administration canceled $230 million for Syrian stabilization and all funding for the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees. Diplomacy, resettlement and assistance work together — cutting off one bleeds the effectiveness of the others.

The refugee program also helps us keep faith with key partners, making it more likely they will step up when we need them. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers, diplomats and aid workers rely on local translators and guides who put their lives on the line to serve by our side. The Trump administration is making a mockery of a special admissions program the Congress established to fast-track their resettlement. So far this fiscal year, between October and August, we have admitted just 48 Iraqi partners, compared with 5,100 in 2016 and 3,000 in 2017.

Some countries of first refuge — like Jordan, Turkey and Kenya — have been counterterrorism partners and hosts to the United States military. These and other countries offering temporary havens are under growing domestic pressure to send back refugees, which risks setting off new humanitarian crises and further destabilizing countries where terrorists find sanctuary.

When we worked at the State Department, we met two young Muslim brothers from Afghanistan who had fled the Taliban. We listened to their story in the California offices of Catholic Charities. They had been resettled by Jewish Family and Community Services, and first found shelter at the San Damiano Friary, a Franciscan retreat.

That was America at its best: a reflection of the generosity and common humanity that defines us and casts a light into the most forlorn corners of the world.

If Mr. Trump effectively shuts down the refugee program, he will be plunging the world — and Americans with it — into greater darkness.

Ariana A. Berengaut, director of programs at the Penn Biden Center, served at the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department from 2011 to 2017. Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director at the Penn Biden Center, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

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