In the first few days of the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security stopped sending investigators overseas to interview refugees seeking asylum in the United States. That was, in effect, a cold stop on processing new applications. The face-to-face interviews are a required part of the vetting process to ensure that potential immigrants pose no risk to American public safety or national security.
Freezing those resettlements — most of which had already been vetted and approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — was a cruel move. At a minimum, it delayed the hopes of thousands of victims of war and unrest seeking permanent refuge in the U.S. from violence or repression in their home countries. Then President Trump followed it up with his atrocious directives formally suspending all refugee resettlement for 120 days (among other things), ostensibly to give the government time to review the vetting process. The administration pointed to no flaws in the process; it just declared that they were weak and needed fixing and that national security hung in the balance.
No sooner did he issue them, however, than those directives were put on hold by court orders. Mayhem has not ensued, suggesting Trump's warning of threats to national security was, at best, alarmist.
We'll leave it to legal minds to determine whether the government's pause in refugee interviews — which began before Trump's directive — violates the letter of an injunction from a federal judge in Hawaii against the latest version of the directive, including the moratorium on resettlements. But it certainly violates the spirit of it, and contradicts America's role as a welcoming haven for the oppressed of the world. Now 16 U.S. senators — 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans, led by Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) — have written to the secretaries of State and Homeland Security demanding an explanation of the administration's policy toward refugee resettlement and of how those policies comport with the court injunction. The American public deserves those answers, too.
Among those whose applications are being held up are people fleeing genocide — as determined last year by the State Department — at the hands of Islamic State, as well as Iraqis whose work for the U.S. has put them at risk of retaliation. But there also are thousands of people from other nations looking for relief. The Trump administration has left them in limbo. According to data published by the State Department, the U.S. has admitted 43,241 refugees since Oct. 1, the start of the current fiscal year, for which President Obama and Congress had budgeted 110,000 refugee admissions. But 30,122 of those entries came before Trump's inauguration; since March 1 only 6,213 refugees have been admitted, part of a steady decline in monthly admissions during Trump's brief time in office.
The president and some of his key advisors — "economic nationalists" Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller most notably — have publicly opposed robust immigration, whether the new arrivals are refugees seeking safety or otherwise. So it's hard not to view the reduction in resettlements as part of a White House plan to broadly curtail immigration. Trump's suspended immigration orders would reduce the resettlement target for the current fiscal year to less than half of the 110,000 set by Obama and Congress. Whether immigration in general is too high is a legitimate subject for political discussion. But for Trump to unilaterally undercut admissions to people in desperate straits, who in effect have no countries or homes to return to safely, is cold-hearted and in the service of no end other than xenophobia.
Every country has the right and responsibility to control its borders, and to determine who gets to enter and remain. And the U.S. has, in the modern era, been relatively welcoming. In fact, the foreign-born segment of the U.S. population has quadrupled since 1960, creating a more diverse society. And since the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. has accepted 3 million refugees at fluctuating annual levels reflecting changing global events and U.S. priorities. In this era of vast migration spawned by wars and famines — the highest levels of human displacement since the end of World War II — the United States needs a more robust refugee resettlement program, not a retreat. Shutting our doors to the desperate would be a mistake.