Donald Trump’s Refugee Policy Is Bureaucratic Sadism

The president’s rollicking abuse of refugees and the answering jeers of his fans are a frank confession of moral rottenness.

Syrian-Kurdish refugees on a bus
Syrian-Kurdish refugees sit on a bus at the Sahela Border in Iraq. (Moises Saman/Magnum)

Donald Trump dishonors America in so many ways that it isn’t possible to keep them all in mind and still remember to brush your teeth. For example, how often do you reflect on the fact that the Trump administration has all but ended the tradition of accepting refugees into this country? In the decades between the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who signed the Refugee Act of 1980, and that of Barack Obama, the United States admitted an average of about 80,000 refugees annually. In some periods, such as after September 11, the numbers fell, but over the years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, the national commitment to provide a safe place for persecuted and desperate people persisted.

Under Trump, the refugee program has almost collapsed. Last year, the administration set a ceiling of just 18,000 refugees. It actually admitted 10,000. Several weeks ago, the administration announced that the ceiling for fiscal year 2021 will go down to 15,000. Becca Heller, the executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me, “I think if Trump is reelected, it’s the end of the U.S. refugee program.”

The crushingly low ceilings act to limit the overall numbers, but Trump also keeps refugees out—now, and for years to come—by setting up barriers that make it just about impossible for them to complete their applications. Because of the administration’s policy of “extreme vetting,” refugees—who have abandoned their homes in poor, chaotic countries; who languish in strange lands, in camps or makeshift housing; who have already been fingerprinted, biometrically examined, interviewed, and background-checked more thoroughly than any other human beings on Earth—now have to provide phone numbers and addresses for every residence in which they lived for more than 30 days during the previous decade, as well as contact information for all close relatives. These are rules—kept secret until IRAP sued to force their disclosure and detailed them in a new report—that most Americans, who are lucky to live in a country with street addresses, would have trouble following.

“Extreme vetting” also requires applicants’ social-media accounts to be scrutinized by U.S. officials in agencies so understaffed and ill-equipped that the process drags on for years. Refugee numbers from majority-Muslim countries, such as survivors of the wars in Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, who face almost insuperably high barriers, have dwindled toward zero. Even the Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives to aid the American war effort in their countries, and who have bipartisan supporters here, can’t get past this wall built to make people fail. Last year, of the several thousand available slots allotted by Congress for America’s Iraqi allies, just 4 percent were filled. Behind the numbers are human beings, in some cases separated for years from children, parents, or spouses already resettled in the U.S., waiting in limbo, in danger, in growing despair. The IRAP report calls Trump’s policy “death by a thousand cuts.” I would call it bureaucratic sadism.

Refugees, whose status is designated by the United Nations, comprise a fraction of the million or more immigrants who come here every year. For all his bluster, Trump has had trouble limiting immigration; perhaps that’s why his administration resorted to kidnapping children at the southern border. But the refugee program has the misfortune of being under the president’s clear authority. If Trump wanted to admit two refugees next year, he could find a way to do it. Immigration policy is inward-looking, driven by matters such as labor markets. But how we treat refugees is the face we choose to show the world. Heller of IRAP explained: “Do we want to have influence at the U.N. around prodemocracy issues? Do we want to have influence over specific human-rights atrocities like ethnic cleansing against Uighurs in China? It all boils down to whether or not the U.S. wants to have meaningful soft power as a force for good on the international stage.”

Given that Trump’s answer to these questions is no, why doesn’t he just shut the refugee program down? Perhaps because his evangelical supporters advocate for the resettlement of persecuted religious minorities, most of them Christians. Last year, 97 percent of those slots were filled. Like everything else in the Trump administration, the refugee program has been thoroughly politicized.

Refugees are among Trump’s favorite scapegoats. They’re his reelection campaign’s migrant caravan. After Joe Biden promised to raise the ceiling to 125,000 in his first year as president, higher than it was under Obama, Trump went after refugees last month at the start of a rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, a state that has resettled thousands of Somalis, including one of Trump’s prime targets, Representative Ilhan Omar. The president got a barely masked, COVID-spreading crowd of thousands stoked as they squeezed together at an airfield:

One of the most vital issues in this election is the subject of refugees. You know it. You know it perhaps better than almost anybody. Lots of luck. You having a good time with your refugees? … Every family in Minnesota needs to know about Sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet. Well, that’s what’s happened, and you like Omar a lot, don’t you? Biden has promised a 700 percent increase in the manifesto with Bernie, right? A 700 percent increase in the importation of refugees from the most dangerous places in the world, including Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Congratulations, Minnesota. A 700 percent increase. Good luck, Minnesota … Sleepy Joe will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp. Think of it. 700 percent increase. So you’re not happy now? … Biden will overwhelm your children’s schools, overcrowd their classrooms, and inundate your hospitals. That’s what’ll happen. Biden has even pledged to terminate our travel ban to jihadist regions, jihadist regions. They’ve already been doing that to you, haven’t they? Opening the floodgates to radical Islamic terrorists.

When I was covering the war in Iraq, I got to know a number of refugees. Some were displaced inside Iraq, others scattered to neighboring countries, waiting to be resettled in Europe or the U.S. I met them in crowded apartments where kids went without school and parents had no work. Months turned into years while they waited for an email or a letter from an international or American official. When one arrived, it usually contained byzantine language offering no clear resolution, only piling new demands on old ones that the family had met several times over—more employment history, another interview, another medical exam because the earlier one had expired during the wait.

I found that refugees, otherwise as diverse as human beings anywhere, shared several qualities. They had suffered greatly—loved ones killed before their eyes, families torn apart. They were in mourning for the lives they’d lost, often focused on simple keepsakes they’d had to leave behind. And they were resolved not to go back. They were determined to find another, safer life, even if the wait took years. The decision to become refugees was too hard and painful for lingering ambivalence. It had taken the ultimate effort of will to give up their old lives. Now they were going to outlast the most indifferent bureaucracies. This was the source of their patience and their courage. No wonder that generations of them—Jews, Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqis—have added so much to American life.

Trump’s rollicking abuse of refugees and the answering jeers of his fans are a frank confession of moral rottenness. His contempt for people who have given up everything to become Americans fully displays his fundamental unworthiness as a president and a human being. His words amplify his deeds: A policy of keeping out refugees in order to feed the fear and hatred of the president’s supporters disgraces the country. Part of the damage, of course, lies in the blighted futures of hundreds of thousands of desperate people. The rest of the damage is to ourselves. There’s no clearer sign than this of America’s abandoned standing in the world. There’s no better way to begin to restore it than by opening our doors wide.