Since the start of the Trump presidency, refugee admissions have fallen considerably, and recent reports suggest they will fall further still. Without the consent of Congress, President Trump can only do so much to curb immigrant admissions overall. But he does have expansive authority over refugee admissions, and he is using it to implement at least part of his restrictionist agenda.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president, in consultation with Congress, is charged with setting a refugee ceiling, a hard limit on total refugee admissions, which can be adjusted in tune with changing foreign-policy priorities. During the Obama years, the refugee ceiling started at 80,000 in the 2010 fiscal year, the level set at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration. President Obama then lowered the ceiling to 76,000 in FY2012 and to 70,000 in FY2013 before raising it to 85,000 in FY2016 and, in the last year of his tenure, to 110,000 in FY2017. Having campaigned on slashing refugee admissions, President Trump set the FY2018 ceiling at 45,000, the lowest since the Refugee Act was signed into law, and actual refugee admissions are expected to come in at half that level.
Before Trump’s singular presidential campaign, widespread skepticism about the wisdom of admitting refugees in large numbers had little effect on policy makers, as leading members of both major parties shared a commitment to the refugee resettlement program, often because they saw refugee admissions as an invaluable foreign-policy tool. That elite bipartisan consensus is now a thing of the past. Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top policy advisers, has pressed for even steeper reductions in the refugee ceiling for the coming fiscal year, to the consternation of senior diplomats and military officials. We’ll soon know if Miller will get his way. I would be surprised if he did not. For one, Trump apparently believes that lowering the refugee ceiling is good politics, and there is reason to believe he’s right.
Unlike almost every other tool of immigration policy at the president’s disposal, lowering the refugee ceiling is virtually backlash-proof. The chaotic rollout of the travel ban galvanized Trump’s opponents, as did the more recent family-separation crisis. The executive branch can, in principle, make it harder for working-class foreigners to gain admission by setting a more stringent public-charge standard, and the Trump administration is actively pursuing this option. I am sympathetic to this proposal, at least as it pertains to future immigrant admissions. Merely floating the idea has, however, already raised alarm bells among low-income immigrants, who worry that a new public-charge rule might make it harder for them to sponsor the admission of relatives, and the proposal may yet exact a political toll.
The political dynamics surrounding refugee admissions are quite different. Refugee immigrants aren’t an especially large or vocal political constituency. Recent arrivals are chiefly concerned with gaining a foothold in American life, while those who arrived in the country decades ago from one country aren’t necessarily motivated by a burning desire to welcome refugees from others. Though there are many activists who will sharply criticize the Trump administration for admitting so few refugees, and though there is majority support for admitting refugees in the abstract, don’t expect Democratic congressional candidates in competitive races to be among them. The recent arrest of Omar Ameen, an Iraqi refugee who stands accused of concealing that he was a murderer who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, is a discomfiting reminder that the vetting of humanitarian migrants has never been foolproof. A Trump White House consumed with scandal would love nothing more than to make refugee admissions a central issue, which is why Democrats are unlikely to take the bait.
But Trump’s efforts to scale back refugee resettlement raise larger questions about the future of the program, and about humanitarian immigration more broadly. Providing tens of thousands of forced migrants with new lives in the U.S. has both a symbolic and strategic purpose. The strategic case for refugee resettlement is straightforward. Military officials have warned that by greatly reducing the resettlement of Iraqi refugees, the Trump administration has made it harder to secure the cooperation of local translators and other personnel in conflict zones. The promise of refugee status is, in other words, a powerful inducement for convincing Iraqis to put their lives at risk. One suspects future presidents will be more receptive to this national-security rationale than Trump, who has been notably skeptical of nation-building efforts.
As for the symbolic dimension, consider that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are found in the developing world, in countries immediately adjacent to unfolding crises, as Alexander Betts and Paul Collier observe in their 2017 book Refuge. By accepting a token number of refugees from host countries experiencing far larger inflows, the U.S. and other rich, market democracies demonstrate solidarity with the states bearing the heaviest burdens. The value of symbolism notwithstanding, states that shelter vast numbers of refugees might prefer increases in aid or trade concessions over the resettlement of a small fraction of those they’ve admitted, which is why some contrarian voices, Betts and Collier included, have called on the rich world to devote substantially more resources to supporting these states of refuge.
Immigration restrictionists, including President Trump, have at times embraced this line of argument, partly on the grounds that resources devoted to refugee resettlement in the U.S. could go much further in, say, lower-cost Jordan, home to more than 650,000 Syrian refugees. Yet Trump has evinced little interest in increasing aid to the world’s biggest refugee-receiving states, suggesting that his passing references to aiding refugees as close to their home countries as possible are best understood as evasive maneuvers. His successors would do well to take this approach more seriously. Short of a sea change in public opinion, one that goes well beyond the thermostatic rejection of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, the prospects for drastic increases in humanitarian immigration to the U.S. aren’t terribly bright. Meeting the needs of the world’s forced migrants will require renewed creativity. Günter Nooke, Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Africa, has called for large-scale investment in special economic zones designed to attract refugees and other migrants seeking opportunity, an ambitious proposal that would surely benefit from a sustained U.S. commitment.
Does this mean that there is no place for humanitarian immigration to the U.S.? Not at all. There will always be compassionate Americans who long to shelter families from strife-torn corners of the world, and there should be avenues open to them. However, our current approach to refugee resettlement does a poor job of leveraging this desire to do good. For decades, the State Department has worked in concert with a set of voluntary agencies, or “volags,” that are provided with a modest amount of federal funding to help refugees establish themselves on American soil. Because most recent refugees to the U.S. have modest skills, the process of adjustment can be exceptionally difficult. Even when they do secure employment relatively quickly, their market incomes tend to be quite low, which is why they often depend on safety-net benefits, refundable tax credits, and other transfers designed to keep Americans out of poverty. Other countries, including, most prominently, Canada, allow for private sponsorship, in which individuals, families, and community groups pledge their own resources to help refugees navigate their new lives for up to a year. The Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, has proposed a private sponsorship system for the U.S. as a means of boosting refugee resettlement, and though the idea hasn’t gained much ground under Trump, a modified version of it could have bipartisan appeal.
Restrictionist critics of the status quo often point to the fact that the volags often resettle refugees in struggling communities, where costs are low and federal funds go further—yet where local public services are often stretched thin, and the long-term labor market prospects of refugees aren’t as bright as they might be in more prosperous communities. At the same time, some of the most vocal champions of refugee resettlement are affluent cosmopolitans who reside in well-off communities, and who might see devoting some portion of their incomes and their daily lives to assisting refugee immigrants as a source of pride and fulfillment. The Stephen Millers of the world might deride such women and men as romantic cosmopolitans, and perhaps they have a point. But why not give them an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is?
Imagine an overhauled Refugee Act that allows for private sponsorship. The executive branch could set one ceiling for refugees who’d be provided for under the existing refugee resettlement program (for example, the 15,000 that’s been reported in the press as the Trump administration’s target for the coming fiscal year) and another (say, an additional 45,000) for refugees who’d be cared for by carefully vetted U.S. families who volunteer to provide for their basic needs for an extended period—I’d recommend a much longer period than a single year, as under the Canadian system, as expecting refugees to achieve self-sufficiency in such a short time strikes me as unrealistic and, just as importantly, the commitment involved shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Private sponsors should be subject to oversight, as it would be outrageous to allow Americans to take advantage of refugee immigrants, and outcomes for the refugees they sponsor should be carefully monitored, so as to help identify best practices for researchers and future sponsors. If broad-minded Americans were to come forward en masse to sponsor refugees under these demanding conditions, it would demonstrate the seriousness of their support for welcoming newcomers who’ve endured profound torments while giving the likes of Trump and Miller an implicit rebuke. If they didn’t, we’d at least know where we stand.