“Make America Cruel Again.” That’s how journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Shipler has reformulated Donald Trump’s trademark slogan. Shipler’s version is particularly apt when you think about the president’s record over the last two years on refugee resettlement and other humanitarian-related immigration issues.
President Trump’s border-wall obsession and the political uproar over it have dominated the news, while the alleged dangers of illegal immigrants – whose numbers he wildly exaggerates – have dominated his rhetoric. But the way he’s altered immigration policy affects many more people than just the migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border who are at the center of the wall debate. Many of those currently or potentially harmed by his actions are not outside the law, but are in the United States legally, some with permanent residence status and others on a temporary or provisional basis. Many more, including tens of thousands of refugees who would be eligible for resettlement, are seeking entry or lawful residence through normal immigration procedures, not trying to sneak into the country.
Among those lawfully here who have been affected by Trump’s policies are nearly three-quarters of a million “Dreamers.” Brought here illegally by their parents, they have qualified to remain under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Those young people have spent well over a year not knowing if they will lose that protection under the current administration, despite strong public support and bipartisan political approval of the program’s premise that it would be inhumane and unfair to penalize young people because of their parents’ actions.
Another 250,000 people face possible deportation if the administration wins its legal battle to terminate their temporary protected status (TPS), which allows those who have been displaced by natural or manmade disasters in their countries to remain in the United States. If it weren’t for court rulings blocking both the enforcement of a presidential order to end DACA and a series of directives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ending TPS for recipients from specific countries, a large majority of the one million people in those two categories would lose their legal status between now and September.
During the government shutdown, President Trump conditionally offered to extend temporary protection under DACA or TPS for another three years in return for support from congressional Democrats for his border wall. Whether any such reprieve will be part of an eventual legislative compromise on the wall remains to be seen, but even if it is, that will only further delay, not remove, the threat hanging over the lives of a million people. And the president’s switch raises a pointed question about his previous stance: if he now believes that letting dreamers and TPS recipients stay for another three years won’t endanger public safety or damage other national interests, why did he want to expel them in the first place?
A proposed change in a different set of immigration rules could take a heavy toll on still another group: lawful immigrants who are seeking the right to legal employment. As drafted by DHS, the new regulations would set much stiffer standards for the requirement that a green-card applicant be self-sufficient and not “likely to become a public charge” (that is, “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence”).
For many years that requirement was applied only to programs that extend cash assistance for income maintenance, such as welfare or Social Security disability payments. Under the proposed drastic expansion of those guidelines, immigrants could also be penalized for using food stamps, Medicaid, or various housing assistance programs.
The burden of those rules, as an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute points out, would fall most harshly on the most disadvantaged applicants. One probable outcome is that women would have a harder time “because they are less likely to be employed than men, generally live in larger households, and have lower incomes.”
Although those rule changes are not yet in effect, they have already led an unknown but significant number of low-income immigrants to forgo food stamps, Medicaid, or other benefits – assistance they are legally entitled to and badly need, but fear might jeopardize their chances for lawful permanent residence.
A case study in cruelty
President Trump’s refugee policy offers perhaps the single best case study of how far he and his team have steered away from compassion. Using the law that lets the president set a ceiling for the admission of refugees, Trump has sharply reduced that annual cap, bringing it to by far the lowest level in 40 years.
That downward trend began only a week into Trump’s presidency when he issued an executive order reducing the ceiling for fiscal 2017 to 50,000 in place of the 110,000 cap originally set by the Obama administration. He then reduced the quota to 45,000 for 2018 and cut it again to 30,000 for 2019. The latest cap is lower by half than any previous one since the current refugee law took effect in 1980 – and actual arrivals have dropped even more sharply because of onerous and time-consuming new screening procedures for refugees.
In 2018, only 22,491 refugees were admitted to the country, fewer than half the number authorized. That is slightly more than one quarter of the refugees admitted during President Obama’s last year in office. It is also considerably lower than in any year since Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, even counting the two years after the 9/11 attacks when refugee admissions dropped sharply because of more intensive screening procedures.
Trump’s cuts came even as the need for humanitarian relief was growing globally. During his first year in office, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the number of individuals “forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence” rose from an already staggering 65.6 million to a record 68.5 million. In both years, slightly more than half of those totals were children below the age of 18. Displaced people officially designated as “refugees” – defined as those driven from their own country – climbed from 22.5 million at the end of 2016 to 25.4 million a year later.
UNHCR has not released its 2018 figures yet, but other measurements indicate that the refugee crisis is still getting worse. In a June 2018 release, the agency projected that the number of people “in need of resettlement globally” in 2019 might be 17% higher than the previous year, clear evidence that the upward trend is continuing. Another figure in its annual reports offers a startling measure of the scale of human suffering around the world and how sharply it’s increasing: 28,300 people were forced to flee their homes every day in 2016, a number that jumped to 44,400 the next year.
Those numbers may seem abstract, but they represent a lot of human misery.
Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s two resettlement offices in Maryland, notes that the Trump administration’s cutbacks on refugee admissions only heighten the suffering of people who have already lost their homes and livelihoods. Tens of thousands of refugees could have started new lives in the United States, if past ceiling levels had been maintained. Now, they face an indefinite future of “protracted displacement,” as Chandrasekar put it in a recent conversation, either in refugee camps with no certainty of adequate food, clothing, or medicine, or as non-citizens in the countries to which they’ve fled and where they live in “precarious urban circumstances,” often unable to work or enroll their children in school.
In other words, Chandrasekar added, the U.S. government “is allowing people who would otherwise qualify for resettlement to live under conditions that could kill them.”
Hurting people who need help – and the helpers
Curtailing the flow of refugees from overseas has also led, by a kind of malevolent logic, to a significant decline in assistance to refugees already in the United States. That’s because the nonprofit agencies that administer the resettlement program receive a set amount of money from the State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement for each individual they are assigned to manage. As a result, when arrivals fall, government funding for those organizations – the two largest being the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the International Rescue Committee – automatically drops as well.
The funds those agencies get from private donors haven’t offset the shortfall in State Department payments. As a result, resources that help resettled refugees find jobs and housing, navigate the health, social service, and educational systems, and the like are shrinking or, in some places, disappearing.
In the most recent cutback, according to the International Rescue Committee’s Chandrasekar, the nine national resettlement agencies were instructed late last year to shutter 39 branch offices in communities across the country, only adding to the closings and staff layoffs of the previous two years. That doesn’t just harm refugees who are getting less service. It also harms the people who provide those services and must now do their emotionally draining work with ever fewer resources and ever more worries about growing caseloads and the possibility of being laid off themselves. In other words, Trump’s policies hurt both people who need help and those who help them, making America cruel indeed.
Fake facts about refugees
The Trump administration has offered two basic arguments for its refugee policies. Both are false.
The first is that refugees are potential terrorists. The title over Trump’s first directive on refugee resettlement explicitly proclaimed that rationale: “Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”
Since then he and his associates have regularly sought to link refugees to terrorism, a claim not validated by either facts or logic. Refugees are more thoroughly screened than any other class of immigrants and plenty of research has shown that the vetting process, which usually lasts two to three years or longer, far from being too loose (as Trump administration officials have often suggested) has been strikingly effective in keeping out dangerous people.
Over more than four decades, not a single American has been killed on U.S. soil by someone who entered the country as a refugee. Of the million-plus refugees who arrived in the last 20 years, no more than a few dozen have been implicated in any kind of terrorism case, lethal or not. Almost none of those cases involved a violent act in this country.
There is no proven case of a terrorist sneaking into the country through the refugee resettlement process. Of the very few refugees who have been connected with terrorist crimes, many came to the United States as children or lived here for years before becoming involved in violent extremism, which means they wouldn’t have been kept out by any vetting procedure, however tight.
The argument that refugees are a drain on public funds and the national economy is also contradicted by the facts. A detailed 2017 report prepared (at the request of the White House) by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that, from 2005 through 2014, refugees paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in taxpayer-funded government assistance – a finding consistent, the authors noted, with comparable analyses of the costs and benefits associated with refugees and other immigrants. Department higher-ups refused to send that report to the White House. Instead, they submitted a much shorter paper that listed only the cost of refugee benefits with no mention of their tax payments and so made the case that Trump and his advisers wanted.
If the stated grounds for the administration’s actions are largely false, do such policy changes serve any valid national goal or legitimate principle?
The administration often makes the case that it is only upholding the rule of law. That is its primary justification, for example, for the effort to kick out several hundred thousand people who have been in the United States for years under the Temporary Protected Status rule. If the law says “temporary,” the government contends, that’s what it means: a status that lets people stay for some period of time but does not give them any right to remain when that interval ends.
Legally and logically, that is an unassailable proposition. Those who have gone to court to block the government’s plan are not contesting the law or the dictionary. The argument is about the facts on the ground and whether the situations in the countries involved are actually safe enough for their temporarily sheltered nationals to go home. As with any lawsuit, the courts that will rule on these cases are bound by the letter of the law. In the larger policy debate, however, there should be room to consider broader questions and ask whether the enforcement of a law is in conflict with other human values.
Even if conditions in El Salvador are now less dangerous, does that justify disrupting the lives that nearly 200,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients have developed over years, even decades, in the United States? Life in Haiti may well be safer than it was nine years ago after a catastrophic earthquake left more than a million people homeless, but does that make it right to use U.S. law to force many Haitians who found shelter in this country to choose between keeping their families together or leaving U.S.-born children here to grow up in greater security than they would have in Haiti?
Zuzana Cepla, a policy and advocacy associate at the Washington-based National Immigration Forum, tells me that she can see the logic of changing the status of TPS recipients once protection is no longer necessary. But, she adds, that does not have to mean leaving several hundred thousand people this year (or even three years from now) with only bad options: deportation back to their home countries, leaving for another country, or going into the shadows and remaining in the United States without documentation. If the sole reason to expel them is that the circumstances they fled 10 or 20 years ago have changed, she concludes, “The problem is in the program, not in the people.”
Cepla was speaking about one program, but her reasoning applies across the full spectrum of immigration issues in the Trump era. If the problem is the system, not the people, it won’t be solved by uprooting a million or more immigrants who have legally resided in the United States for years or closing the door on tens of thousands of refugees who would qualify for resettlement. The solution should be to fix the system, not punish the people.
Americans don’t need to keep shouting at each other about Trump’s border wall. They need to talk about how to reform the immigration system without needlessly damaging a great many human lives. That would be the logical and useful discussion to have. It would also be a good way to start making America decent again.