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What’s Less Patriotic Than Abandonment of the US Refugee Protection Program?

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Raúl Nájera/Unsplash

What’s Less Patriotic Than Abandonment of the US Refugee Protection Program?

This week, the Trump administration has descended to a new level of contempt for the US refugee protection system. From its very first days in office when it evoked specious national security concerns to suspend the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days and indefinitely bar the admission of Syrian refugees, the administration has sought to discredit and diminish the US refugee resettlement, asylum, temporary protection, and other humanitarian programs.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump regularly decried the ways in which President Barack Obama exercised Executive authority, including by offering status, work authorization and protection from deportation to undocumented residents brought to the United States as children. As president, however, he has far exceeded Obama in unilaterally exercising his immigration authorities, albeit in favor of indiscriminate enforcement and evisceration of humanitarian programs. Many of these measures – although often justified on rule of law grounds – have not survived legal challenge.

To provide just a sampling of the Trump administration’s misguided policies, it has cut refugee admissions to historically low levels at a time of unprecedented need; has sought to rescind Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 95 percent of the program’s beneficiaries; ended the Central American Minors (CAM) program which allowed El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children to undergo refugee screening in their own countries and join their legally present parents in the United States; cut aid to the Northern Triangle states, which have produced in recent years the lion’s share of migrants and asylum-seekers to the United States, and; denied access to the US asylum system through interception, border enforcement, and cruel deterrence strategies, such as separating children from parents and forcing asylum seekers to wait for months in dangerous Mexican border cities while their US claims are pending.

The president habitually impugns the patriotism of his critics, but has systematically attempted to dismantle quintessentially American programs, which have long reflected and projected US values. Some of the most shameful episodes in the US history – as when it turned away the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on the S.S. St. Louis – involve the United States’ failure to protect refugees. By contrast, its leadership in responding to the refugees generated by World War II, the Vietnam conflict, the Cuban revolution, and the Balkans war in the former Yugoslavia – earned it the respect, gratitude and good will of many states and countless persons.  They made it a beacon of freedom.

How do these programs serve US interests? They save lives (a core value). They promote regional and global stability. They reduce irregular migration. They promote US foreign policy goals. They encourage developing nations to continue to offer haven and integration opportunities to the bulk of the world’s refugees. They promote cooperation with US diplomatic, military and counterterror strategies. They link communities, including diverse faith communities, that work together to welcome and resettle refugees. As President Ronald Reagan put it in 1981, they continue “America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and shares the “responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

On July 18, Politico reported that the administration has been trying to make the case for admitting no refugees in FY 2020 – not those already approved for admission, not the family members of refugees in the United States, not those who assisted the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not survivors of religious persecution, although the administration regularly touts its commitment to religious liberty. It has reportedly been weighing a farcical rationale for this extraordinary step; that is, the United States cannot both process asylum claims and resettle refugees, although it has been doing both for decades.

On July 15, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOD) issued final interim regulations – which became effective the following day – that seek to deny access to the US asylum system to virtually every asylum-seeker at the southern border. With narrow exceptions, the rule would bar asylum claims by those “who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one third country” outside his or her “country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which he or she transited en route to the United States.”

Yet the Immigration and Nationality Act allows any non-citizen physically present in the United States to apply for asylum.  Removal is permitted only “pursuant to a bilateral or multilateral agreement” to a third country where “the alien’s life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and where the alien is eligible to receive asylum or equivalent temporary protection.” In short, this exception applies to “safe third country” agreements with other nations.  The United States has only one such agreement – with Canada – which does not apply to asylum-seekers with family members in the other country, as the DHS and DOD regulation would.  The pre-conditions for such an agreement are that an agreement actually exists,  the state parties to the agreement are “safe,” and they have “full and fair” asylum policies and procedures. The DHS/DOJ rule flouts all of these statutory requirements.

Ironically, the Trump administration claims that it needs to take this step based on the numbers of people seeking protection from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Yet great demand and need argue for a robust, well-resourced asylum system, not the shell of a program.

Some percentage of asylum-seekers from these countries will ultimately be found to be ineligible for asylum, although a very high percentage have been forced to leave their violence-torn homelands and will at least present credible claims. For its part, the Trump administration has not effectively addressed the causes driving the flight of these migrants, has not offered legal migration opportunities to those in great need, and has failed to take any of steps necessary to address a human crisis of this magnitude. These steps would certainly reduce irregular migration and the high numbers of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.  Instead, it has resorted to deterrence, interception and border enforcement policies – a recipe for failure on humanitarian, legal, and enforcement grounds, and a boon only to human smuggling networks and for-profit prisons.

The administration is dismantling the US refugee resettlement program and the asylum system – at immense human cost, to the nation’s detriment, and with disastrous consequences for the international system of refugee protection which it once led.  This isn’t patriotism.  It’s an act of sabotage of a defining set of American value and a once proud program.  One day – perhaps soon – it will be looked upon as a shameful episode in US history.

July 19, 2019