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A Dwindling Parade of Refugees

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 27, 2018

Even as the Trump administration moves to expel Salvadorans, Haitians and Sudanese — to say nothing about the Dreamers whose fate is pending — who have been in the United States under various temporary protected status determinations, more refugees are seeking admission.

These are people outside of the now ubiquitous debate over legal/illegal immigration. They are fleeing oppression or worse.

This is the year in which the Trumpists have vowed to cut in half the number of refugees allowed into the country, from about 85,000 in 2016 to about 45,000 this year. Almost half of those 2016 refugees were Muslims, higher than in most years.

Still, you’d hardly know this. The White House doesn’t make a big deal about the continuing arrivals of refugees or welcoming them to safe shores. By contrast, in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone out of his way to greet some refugees from Syria, for example.

In the United States, we specifically have said ‘no’ to Syrians.

You may remember that as part of the presidentially-ordered Travel Ban against several majority-Muslim nations plus some people from Venezuela, the government also halted handling of all refugee and asylum requests for entry. Once the smoke cleared from various judicial reviews, the Department of Homeland Security set the number at 45,000, lowest sought by a White House since 1980.

Until the Travel Ban, the United States had been on a pace to admit 110,000 refugees.

Indeed, it has been reported that Stephen Miller, Trump’s hard-line immigration policy adviser, and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, former secretary of homeland security, had wanted to cut that number to 15,000 before the State and Defense Departments argued for 50,000.

Just to remind everyone, a refugee is a person outside his or her country who feels unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

An asylum seeker is a person who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry. Refugees are required to apply for green card status one year after admission and asylum seekers may seek a green card after a year.

My own family faced just such a quandary in my mother’s teenage years. Entry to the United States was barred for European Jews by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and her family ended up fleeing from Germany to the only place in the world that would take them — China, where visas were not needed, only to be locked up as prisoners of war by the invading Japanese for the remainder of World War II. Yes, I have some special empathy for fleeing refugees.

In 2016, the last full year reported, 85,000 refugees were admitted with the largest numbers from the Congo, Syria, and Burma, along with 20,400 asylees with the largest number from China, El Salvador and Guatemala. (I’m pretty sure these countries stand lower on Trump’s list of acceptable nations as compared with Norway.)

From 1990 to 1995, an average of about 112,000 refugees arrived in the United States each year, with many coming from the former Soviet Union. However, refugee admissions dropped off to fewer than 27,000 in 2002 following the terrorist attacks in 2001. This yearly number has since trended up.

Still, given the rocky path that this administration has followed towards an understandable and enforceable immigration policy, those number sound big.

They are not big when you look at the world’s problems creating new refugees every day, but it is a mark of Trump’s impact that even with “extreme vetting,” wholesale eliminations of immigration categories and the rest, that the United States took in 85,000 in a year.

According to The Wall Street Journal, 1980 was the first year of legislation giving the president a role in determining a cap on refugees. Until now, the ceiling had never been below 67,000, the number that Ronald Reagan set in 1986. During that time, perhaps three million refugees have been resettled in the United States.

Generally, the White House debate has pit the immigration purists against the more practical concerns of the military and diplomatic officials, who see strategic value in showing the United States to be compassionate and to help protect people who have been helpful to the U.S. military.

The refugee admissions process can take up to 18 to 24 months, and includes a review of applications by the State Department and other federal agencies, in-person interviews, health screenings and, for many, cultural orientations.

California, Texas and New York resettled nearly a quarter of all refugees in fiscal 2016. Other states that received at least 3,000 refugees included Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania and Illinois. By contrast, Arkansas, the District of Columbia and Wyoming each resettled fewer than 10 refugees. Delaware and Hawaii took in no refugees.

The American public has seldom approved of accepting large numbers of refugees. In October 2016, some 54% of registered voters said that the United States does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria, while 41% said it does. There was a wide partisan gap on this measure, with 87% of Trump supporters saying the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to accept Syrians, compared with only 27% of Clinton supporters who said the same. Polls from previous decades show Americans have largely opposed admitting large numbers of refugees from countries where people are fleeing war and oppression.


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