Refugees are not simply impoverished migrants. A refugee is defined, by a 1951 international convention, as a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted … is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
The maximum number of refugees that the U.S. should accept in a given year is a fraught question. Dara Lind reports that in the final year of the Carter administration, federal officials settled on the answer 231,700. Under Reagan, the answer fluctuated between a high of 217,000 and a low of 67,000. The most common answer under George H.W. Bush was 131,000. Under Bill Clinton, the number ranged between 142,000 and 78,000. Under George W. Bush, the most common figure was 70,000, while under Barack Obama, figures ranged from 70,000 to 85,000 until the last year of his presidency––on his way out, with kids at the border, the figure surged to 110,000.
What the last 6 presidents—three Republicans, three Democrats—have in common is settling on a significantly bigger number than the Trump administration announced this week as its new refugee maximum.
“Trump plans to cap the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States next year at 30,000,” The New York Times reports, “further cutting an already drastically scaled-back program that offers protection to foreigners fleeing violence and persecution.” (Last year’s figure under Team Trump was 45,000 refugees, though that is misleading in that far fewer refugees were actually resettled in practice—according to a recent article in The Guardian, “With two weeks to go in the 2018 fiscal year, the US has admitted 20,918 refugees for resettlement – 46% of the current 45,000 refugee cap.”)
What does the new 30,000 figure mean in practice?
Most consequentially, tens of thousands more people fleeing war, famine, religious or political persecution, or sexist violence will be consigned to death, or destitution, or the danger, disease, and degradation of an overcrowded camp, rather than getting a chance at a better life like the ancestors of so many current Americans citizens.
Will Americans be safer as a result?
Persuasive data gathered on refugees resettled in the United States between 2006 and 2015 suggests that almost all of the most-affected communities saw their crime rates fall rather than rise in ensuing years.
And the economic effects?
A simple monetary cost is difficult to calculate, in part because of the question of time horizons. For instance, the cost of resettling the Vietnamese boat people looked very different in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as impoverished, largely rural Vietnamese refugees entered the country, than it does today, when Vietnamese Americans earn more money and therefore pay more in taxes than the average American.
Trump administration political appointees and longer-serving bureaucrats have clashed as to how best to calculate today’s refugee costs—but whatever the true figure, it is difficult to accept that a country much wealthier and more populous than it was in 1980 is now able to afford just a fraction of the refugees that it managed to absorb decades ago.
A non-monetary cost of refugee resettlement is rising xenophobia and political polarization: In some areas, American citizens with a predisposition to authoritarian psychology—that is to say, a perhaps innate discomfort with difference—react to newcomers with xenophobia and bigotry. A generation ago, the Ku Klux Klan exploited the arrival of Vietnamese immigrants on the Gulf Coast. Trump’s 2016 campaign successfully exploited fears over Syrian and Somalian refugees.
For many non-bigoted nationalists and most white supremacists and anti-Muslims, the newly lowered limit on refugees is cause for celebration and a vindication of their support for the Trump Administration.
But what of another core Trump constituency?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of the Second Coming, telling his disciples that all humanity will be gathered to distinguish those chosen to reside with him in Heaven from those damned to join the devil in Hell. He says those blessed to spend eternity with God will be told, “Take your inheritance … for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Whereas the condemned will be told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil... For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” When they retort, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus said, they will be told that whatever they failed to do for the least of their fellow humans, “you did not do for me.”
Intervening millennia have offered no shortage of opportunities to care for strangers who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or otherwise destitute, rather than turning them away. Christian charities are often at the forefront of such efforts. The UN Refugee Agency now estimates 68.5 million displaced people worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees—roughly half children—and 3.1 million asylum seekers.
If Trump’s coalition believes the U.S. cannot possibly absorb all of them—that even God would not want so many people welcomed into the life raft that it sank, to invoke an analogy oft-used by immigration restrictions—it seems equally clear that the levels of refugee absorption the U.S. sustained for decades were eminently sustainable. Yet Trump and his supporters—a coalition its churchgoers can make or break—have the distinction of planning to help tens of thousands fewer strangers in urgent need than any governing coalition in modern history.
To the question, “Why remain part of that particular coalition?” one suspects that Jesus would demand an answer better than “But Gorsuch.”
What is it?