Trump Hits New Low in Refugee Protection

Trump Hits New Low in Refugee Protection
A view from U.S. side of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz. (Peg Hunter / Flickr)

The Trump administration is poised to authorize no more than 15,000 refugee admissions to the United States for Fiscal Year 2021—yet another historically low entry in President Trump’s effort to destroy the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 

Since Trump’s inauguration in 2017, he has repeatedly slashed refugee admission numbers from an Obama-era high of 110,000 to 50,000 (FY 2017), then 45,000 (FY 2018), then 30,00 (FY 2019), then 18,000 (FY 2020), and now, lower still. 

There is still time, however, to push back against the hate and fear-mongering driving this action, which is not yet final.

The State Department submitted the president’s initial recommendation for annual refugee admissions numbers and other policy decisions to Congress on September 30—hours before the fiscal year ended—but this does not set the numbers for the year. The final determination is required under law to be made only after consultations with Congress

The Trump administration has repeatedly flaunted that provision of law, missing both the October 1 deadline this year and in years past for issuing the determination and avoiding the requirement to meet with Congress beforehand.  According to Meredith Owen, deputy director for policy and advocacy at Church World Service, the refugee resettlement program has come to a grinding halt until this year’s determination is issued.

It’s a shocking abdication of responsibility at a time when the world desperately needs leadership on protecting refugees.  According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, there are more than 79.5 million displaced people in the world, 29.6 million of them refugees.  Half of the world’s refugees are children under 18.

Trump Hits New Low in Refugee Protection
Refugee children from Cambodia. (United Nations Photo / Flickr)

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The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis has created an even more precarious situation for the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom have been stranded for years in refugee camps or live on the margins of society, and thus are at heightened risk of becoming ill and/or falling further into poverty, but also of trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

While the U.S.  mostly paused refugee admissions in March in response to COVID-19 , the regular process resumed at the end of July, with heightened health and safety protocols in place.  The result, however, is that roughly 10,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in FY 2020—a number even lower than refugee admissions immediately after 9/11.  

The great tragedy here is that more than 120,000 people have already been approved for travel to the United States as refugees, but the Trump administration’s decision to repeatedly shrink the program  overtime has left them in limbo for years. Owen says that Church World Service has clients in the U.S. who have been waiting since 2017 for the arrival of refugee family members whose travel orders were cancelled after President Trump came into office.

Sylvia Nyamuhungu. (Treetops Collective)

Sylvia Nyamuhungu sees the impact of these delays every day in her work with refugee communities in Michigan.

Born in a Tanzanian refugee camp and raised in Kenya by her Rwandan refugee parents, Sylvia came to the U.S. when she was 14. In total, her family’s journey to the U.S. took 17 years—but they count themselves lucky to have arrived in 2011, long before the current madness in refugee policy. 

Many of the refugees she works with, however, grapple daily with the consequences of Trump’s policies.  They are desperately worried about their loved ones still abroad and disheartened by the constant attacks from President Trump and his administration.

And yet, she says, they still have hope.  “In the midst of all their challenges and worry, people aren’t giving up.” 

She points out that many refugees are essential workers who have kept on working and taking care of their families throughout the pandemic.  Owen notes that current and former refugees  are a critical part of the essential workforce: 176,000 in health care and 175,000 in the food supply chain, numbers which reinforce the overall contributions refugees making in supporting and revitalizing American communities.

Slashing refugee numbers, then, is literally hurting all of us. And it is hurting the U.S. abroad.  We’ve lost our cherished place as the leader in refugee admissions, a place that allowed the government to advocate for more generous humanitarian policies the world over.  And we have weakened our own diplomatic options, limiting the U.S. ability to use refugee resettlement as one component in helping to mitigate tensions in volatile areas of the world.

The U.S. Is “At Risk of Losing America’s Heart”

Trump Hits New Low in Refugee Protection
A view from U.S. side of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz. (Peg Hunter / Flickr)

Perhaps most important, we are at risk of losing America’s heart.  The generosity and compassion that Americans show in times of crisis—that we have continued to show despite COVID-19 and the growing threats to our democracy—is being written out of the federal government’s playbook.

President Trump has chosen yet again to bash refugees as part of a campaign strategy that relies on xenophobia and fear mongering to rally voters. The New York Times reports that, as the State Department was transmitting its report to Congress, the president was attacking refugees to bolster his support in the Midwest, badmouthing Somalians and warning Minnesota voters that Joe Biden, who supports increasing refugee admissions to 125,000, would turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.

But Trump would turn America into a fortress, isolated from the rest of the world and from our own values. Even the official reasons for reducing refugee admissions, such as the need to resolve the cases of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers already in the country—are disingenuous.

Under Trump, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have repeatedly and unlawfully blocked access to asylum, attempting not only to prevent asylum seekers from entering the U.S., but also keeping them from applying for asylum, despite U.S. law that entitles anyone present in the United States to apply. 

Women families, and young children have all been victims of these policies, which have become even more draconian in response to the pandemic, with the Trump administration expelling immigrants, including more than 8800 children, with no asylum screenings or immigration hearings whatsoever.

Take Action on Behalf of Refugees

We can fight back. Use your voice and your vote to support refugees. As Sylvia Nyamuhungu reminded me, she knows that her arrival in the U.S. years ago was the result of the hard work that it takes to run the refugee program, to nurture it and to support it.  We can all lend a hand with that and, in the process, can restore refugee protection to its rightful place in the American playbook.

Contact your members of Congress and ask them to hold the administration accountable on refugee admissions by conducting meaningful consultations with Congress and increasing the refugee admission number to 95,000.


Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.