CMS ESSAY

The Darkening City on the Hill: The Trump Administration Heightens Its Assault on Refugee Protection

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Orlok/ Shutterstock

The Darkening City on the Hill: The Trump Administration Heightens Its Assault on Refugee Protection

In 2018, the global population of forcibly displaced persons reached a record 70.8 million, including 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum-seekers. The United States led the response to past refugee crises of a similar magnitude, as, for example, in the aftermath of World War II and the Vietnam conflict. Yet although the United States remains the largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,[1] the Trump administration has sought to steer the country in a different direction. The United States now seems poised to become the global leader in refugee responsibility shunning and of exclusionary nationalist states, whose leaders the president regularly praises, fetes and seems to emulate.  The administration’s recent actions have been particularly damaging to the nation’s identity, to the millions of forcibly displaced in search of safety and a permanent home, and to the ethic of responsibility sharing set forth in the Global Compact on Refugees, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly last December.   

On September 26, 2019, the White House released two long-anticipated decrees. Its Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement requires that both states and localities consent to the resettlement of refugees in a particular locality.  If either refuses to consent, the Order provides that “refugees should not be resettled within that State or locality,” except in very narrow circumstances that include prior notification of the president. States could bar refugee resettlement, for example, in cities that have been renewed by refugees and that badly want and need them. The Order purports to ensure that “refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force.”  Yet significant coordination already occurs, and it can be strengthened without creating a state and local veto that would hamstring the federal government’s administration of this program. For many years, media sources and politicians, including the president, have railed against the refugee program’s putative insecurity and the burdens it imposes on communities. If implemented, the Order would further politicize refugee protection and diminish resettlement opportunities. Evisceration of the refugee program (not integration) seems to be the Order’s purpose, and would certainly be its result. 

In addition, the Order seems to require states and localities to take an affirmative step – as part of a yet-determined process – to consent to refugee placement.  In other words, they must “opt in” to the program. If they do not, then the federal government would deem the jurisdiction unacceptable for resettlement. In these circumstances, the enhanced federal consultation with states and localities and their “greater involvement in the process” of refugee placement would consist of nothing at all. 

Also on September 26, the administration released the President’s annual Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020. This document announced the administration’s decision to limit refugee admissions to 18,000 in FY 2020, the lowest number in the 40-year history of the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), lower even that the two years following the 9/11 attacks.[2]  The Refugee Council USA explained the implications of this decision as follows:

This decision is unprecedented, cruel, and contrary to American humanitarian values and strategic interests. Historically, the United States has been the global leader on refugee resettlement, setting an average refugee admissions goal of 95,000 people annually. To slam the door on persecuted people while the number of refugees displaced globally continues to rise to historic levels upends decades of bipartisan tradition. It also abandons thousands of refugees in need of resettlement, leaving them in precarious, often life-threatening situations.

The Refugee Council USA also pointed out that the forthcoming Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for FY 2020 – which constitutes formal notice of the refugee ceiling – will further dismantle “the community-based infrastructure in the US, which has long welcomed the most in-need refugees and provided them the opportunity to rebuild their lives in safety.”  This infrastructure – which has been decades in the making – will take years to rebuild. 

The administration’s rationale for historically low admissions are specious. The Report to Congress makes the obvious point that it would be more impactful to “resolve” refugee-producing conditions, than to resettle large numbers of refugees. Yet there is no reason why the United States cannot administer a robust resettlement program and address the causes of displacement through diplomacy. These two strategies complement each other. Resettlement is typically available for a relatively small number of particularly vulnerable refugees. UNHCR reports that 68 percent of its refugee submissions for 2018 “were for survivors of violence and torture, those with legal and physical protection needs, and particularly vulnerable women and girls. Just over half of all resettlement submissions concerned children.”  

Moreover, the Trump administration has failed to wield US “[d]iplomatic tools – for example, foreign assistance, economic and political engagement, and alliance-building” to resolve refugee-producing conditions or to create the conditions that would allow refugees to return home safely and voluntarily. To the contrary, it has been consistently dismissive of these tools and has failed to create any new legal avenues for desperate persons to migrate. Instead, it has cut foreign aid to states that have generated the largest numbers of asylum-seekers in recent years, and it terminated the Obama-era Central American Minors program, which allowed qualifying children from Central America’s Northern Triangle states to enter the United States legally as refugees or parolees in order to join their legally present parents.    

The Report to Congress also lauds the US commitment to asylum and to other protection programs, which it argues make the United States “the most compassionate and generous nation in history.”  Yet the administration has systematically sought to weaken the US asylum system and its “temporary and permanent protection” programs for “victims of trafficking, humanitarian parole, temporary protected status, and special immigrant juvenile status.”  

In particular, it has sought to rescind Temporary Protected Status for the overwhelming majority of its beneficiaries. It has used the cruelty of family separation and detention to deter asylum-seekers from coming. It has reduced due process protections by expanding the expedited removal process. It has also corrupted the expedited removal process by allowing Border Patrol agents – who lack sufficient training in refugee protection and who tend to be deeply suspicious of asylum claims – to assume the role of Asylum Officers and to determine whether asylum-seekers possess a “credible fear” and thus can pursue their claims. It has adopted numerous strategies to prevent and deter asylum-seekers from reaching US territory such as criminally prosecuting and detaining them, and limiting access to the system, including through interception in transit, crude turn-backs at the border, and metering (scheduling) requirements in Mexico for insufficient interview slots in the United States.

Other administrative initiatives will force asylum-seekers to abandon their claims. Under the Return to Mexico program (misnamed the “Migrant Protection Protocols”), for example, US asylum seekers need to wait in dangerous Mexican border communities, while their cases slowly wind through the US immigration system. Early reports indicate that the United States has returned some asylum-seekers to Southern Mexico, making it impossible for them to pursue their claims. The Trump-era Attorneys General have also tried to reject, by fiat, certain common asylum claims (such as those based on gang violence) and have sought to diminish the independence and rigor of the immigration court system. The administration has also sought to weaken protections based on child welfare principles – which it sees as enforcement “loopholes” – for unaccompanied refugee and migrant minors, and for other vulnerable groups.

As it did in announcing its (then) record low admission ceiling for FY 2019, the Report to Congress for FY 2020 argues that the “current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees.”  It is true that asylum applications to the United States have spiked in recent years. Yet as Susan Martin has argued, the United States has historically been able to meet significant demands on its asylum system and to resettle substantial numbers of refugees. In the early 1980s, for example, it received and settled 125,000 Cubans and many thousands of Haitians who had reached Florida’s shores.  It also resettled more than 207,000 refugees in 1980 and nearly 160,000 in 1981. By FY 1994, it faced a backlog of more than 425,000 pending asylum applications, but it still resettled 113,000 refugees in 1994 and nearly 100,000 in 1995. Martin concludes that the Trump administration either is “far less competent than its predecessors in managing complex movements of people so it must make a tradeoff between resettlement and asylum” or, more likely, “it is using asylum as a thinly veiled excuse to reduce overall immigration admissions.”  

Finally, the Report to Congress claims that the president “is taking new steps to make sure that the refugees that the United States welcomes are set up to succeed.” In support of this claim, it references the Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement, which (as discussed) effectively bars resettlement in states and localities that object or do not affirmatively consent to it.  This measure, combined with the administration’s pitifully low admissions ceiling, will deny the possibility of admission and, thus, integration to countless refugees. The Order allows for the resettlement of “spouses and children” following to join refugees.  However, the admissions cap will keep many resettled refugees indefinitely separated from their families and, in this way, will impede their integration.

As it stands, refugees have been remarkably successful in the United States without the administration’s “reforms.”  A 2018 study by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) compared 1.1 million resettled refugees who arrived between 1987 and 2016, with non-refugees, the foreign born, and the total US population.  It found that the labor force participation (68 percent) and employment rates (64 percent) of the 1.1 million refugees exceeded those of the total US population (63 and 60 percent), which consists mostly of US citizens.  Refugees with the longest tenure (who arrived between 1987 and 1996) had integrated more fully than recent arrivals (from 2007-2016), as measured by: households with mortgages (41 to 19 percent); English language proficiency (75 to 55 percent); naturalization rates (89 to 24 percent); college education (66 to 32 percent); labor force participation (68 to 61 percent); employment (66 to 55 percent); and, self-employment (14 to 4 percent). Finally, the study found that refugees who arrived between 1987 and 1996 exceeded the total US population in median personal income ($28,000 to $23,000), homeownership (41 to 37 percent) and many other metrics.

To cap off the worst month in the 40-year history of the US refugee protection system, the US Supreme granted a stay on September 11, 2019 that ensured that the United States would, at least temporarily, reject most asylum claims from migrants who have passed through a third country (not their own) on their way to the US-Mexico border. It stayed a lower court order that enjoined the implementation of an interim final rule that will allow claims from such asylum-seekers to proceed only if they can show that they first sought and failed to receive asylum or Torture Convention protection in a third country.[3] 

In the best of circumstances, the US asylum process is arduous and uncertain, and many persons who have fled violence and other dangerous conditions ultimately do not prevail in their claims. However, the rule would make it far more difficult even to access this system.  It would bar most asylum claims to the United States, including almost all from Central America and other nations that have been the source of most US asylum applications in recent years. Although described as a “safe third country” measure, the rule evinces no concern for the safety of asylum-seekers, for their aspirations, or for the ability of refugee-producing states such as Guatemala or El Salvador to accommodate additional asylum requests. It also violates international law. The stay means that the rule will now go into effect, while the underlying legal challenges to it run their course. If upheld, the rule would eviscerate the US asylum system.  In fact, this seems to be its purpose. 

The administration’s policies raise the question: Why does the United States offer protection to refugees and asylum-seekers at all?  In passing the Refugee Act of 1980, which established USRAP and harmonized US asylum standards with international law, Congress recognized “the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands,” and it encouraged “all nations to provide assistance and resettlement opportunities to refugees to the fullest extent possible.”  For decades, there has been a bipartisan consensus that saving lives – as the US refugee program undeniably does –reflects US ideals and projects them to the world. Moreover, refugees do not threaten or burden the nation: They renew it by exemplifying core US values, such as courage, endurance, and a love of freedom.  Most refugees passionately identify with the United States, having found in it the security, opportunity and freedom denied them elsewhere. Robust refugee protection policies, the consensus held, serves the nation’s interests in global stability, diminished irregular migration, and increased cooperation on US diplomatic, military and security priorities.  The program has also saved countless persons who risked their lives to work for and on behalf of the US government.  

In his July 30, 1981 statement on US immigration and refugee policy, President Ronald Reagan committed to continuing “America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and that shares “the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”  He also acknowledged the importance of these policies to the nation’s interests. In his January 11, 1989 farewell address to the nation, Reagan spoke of the United States as a nation that had always stood as a beacon of freedom to the world’s refugees, but that this identity needed to be “rediscovered.”  It needs to be rediscovered now as well, and before the Trump administration succeeds in fully dismantling one of the nation’s defining and proudest programs.


[1] The lion’s share of the UNHCR’s budget – more than three-quarters – goes to its refugee program.

[2] As is its wont, the administration skirted the law in setting the refugee ceiling prior to its statutorily mandated consultation with Congress on admissions. It insists that it still plans to consult with Congress, but to what substantive end is not clear. 

[3] The administration misused the previously rare procedure of issuing an “interim final rule” to allow the asylum rule to go into effect prior to formal notice and comment rulemaking, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act. 

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication September 30, 2019

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