Restoring the ‘Soul of the Nation’ Means Taking in Refugees

Biden must reverse Trump’s efforts to ratify a racial and sectarian conception of American citizenship.

Joe Biden in silhouette
Alex Wong / Getty

One of the Trump administration’s early priorities was engineering a whiter America through immigration restrictions. We know this because it told us so.

“U.S. demographics have been changing rapidly—and undesirably in the eyes of top Trump aides, including his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and domestic policy advisor Stephen Miller,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February 2017. The travel ban targeting Muslim nations was the first step in an agenda “to reshape American demographics for the long term and keep out people who Trump and senior aides believe will not assimilate.”

The key phrase there is will not assimilate. Nothing is inherently wrong with nations adopting immigration policies best adapted to their economic needs. But Miller, Bannon, and Trump used immigrants who will not assimilate as code for immigrants who are not white and Christian. Miller privately praised racist immigration restrictions targeting Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews, Africans, and Asians that the United States adopted in the early 20th century. Bannon famously lamented the presence of South Asian tech workers in Silicon Valley. And Trump himself complained about African, Latin American, and Caribbean immigrants as being fromshithole countries,” an assessment rooted in the racial backgrounds of these immigrants, rather than their individual capabilities.

The L.A. Times also cited an anonymous senior administration official, who told the paper that “we don’t want a situation where, 20 to 30 years from now, it’s just like a given thing that on a fairly regular basis there is domestic terror strikes, stores are shut up or that airports have explosive devices planted, or people are mowed down in the street by cars and automobiles and things of that nature.” Later that year, a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, part of a crowd that had shouted “Jews will not replace us!” the night before, used a car to mow down anti-racist protesters. Trump memorably equated the two groups, insisting that there were “fine people on both sides.”

Two weeks later, the future president, Joe Biden, wrote in The Atlantic that the murder of Heather Heyer, the growing confidence of white-nationalist groups, and Trump’s defense of them had deeply affected him.

“We have an American president who has emboldened white supremacists with messages of comfort and support,” Biden wrote. “If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”

Biden returned to a battle for the soul of this nation as a campaign theme in 2020—successfully, as it turned out. Which raises the mystery of why President Biden is quietly maintaining one of the Trump era’s most discriminatory policies and a key element of Trump advisers’ broader agenda of making America white again: the throttling of refugee admissions. (The limits the Trump administration placed on refugee admissions are distinct from its attack on the asylum process, which was undertaken with similar intentions.)

In 2020, only about 12,000 refugees were admitted to the United States—a steep decline from 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, when about 85,000 were admitted. This year, despite having vowed to reverse Trump’s discriminatory immigration policies, the Biden administration is on track to admit even fewer refugees, having allowed in only about 2,000 so far, according to a report from the International Rescue Committee. The Trump-era restrictions, the report notes, “have amounted to a de facto ban on many Muslim refugees. These policies, in the sordid tradition of the Muslim and Africa Ban, have undeniably discriminatory impacts along lines of nationality and religion.”

America’s military misadventures over the past few decades have shown the folly of attempting to remake the world through force. But one morally righteous and uncomplicated action that the United States can take to help those suffering under repressive governments, violent extremists, or climate catastrophes is allowing them to live here and contribute to American society, as generations of refugees have done before them. In some cases, these refugees are fleeing circumstances created or exacerbated by American foreign policy, and admitting them is the least the United States can do.

The Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who has been covering this story for weeks, notes that the Biden administration’s failure to sign its own paperwork has left some 700 refugees, already screened under the Trump-era security process but excluded by its discriminatory criteria, in limbo and unable to travel to the United States. “The only thing preventing their entry is Biden—who refuses to do the right thing and sign a simple document,” Rampell writes.

I asked the White House to explain what logistical barriers might prevent the refugee cap from being lifted, and why hundreds of already vetted refugees are being blocked from resettlement. Instead of offering specifics, an administration spokesperson reiterated prior public statements about the Trump administration breaking the refugee-admissions process and Biden officials’ promises to fix it. Officials told CNN that Biden fears the “optics” of accepting refugees while the administration faces dubious accusations of being responsible for an influx of migrants at the border.

Restoring “the soul of the nation” cannot mean simply unseating Trump. It also has to mean reversing the policies his administration put in place in an attempt to codify into law his racial and sectarian conception of American citizenship. If Biden cannot do that, then he has restored little more than Democratic control of the presidency. And should he fail to rescind these policies simply because he fears criticism of those who enabled Trump’s cruelty to begin with, it will be nothing short of cowardice.

“My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that once again welcomes the stranger and shows a preferential option for the poor, remembering how so many of us and our ancestors came here in a similar way,” Biden wrote in 2019. “It’s not enough to just wish the world were better. It’s our duty to make it so.”