Trump’s Refugee Policy Also Hurts the Most Vulnerable Christians

The U.S. has admitted only 70 of them from the Middle East, the region where they are most at risk.

Christian men are seated outside a trailer at the Ankawa refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, on September 12, 2018.
Christians at the Ankawa refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq (Azad Lashkari / Reuters)

Not long after becoming president, Donald Trump said he saw Christians in Syria as a “priority” for his administration. “They’ve been horribly treated. If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very, very tough, to get into the United States. If you were a Muslim, you could come in. But if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible,” he told Christian Broadcasting Network News, though the U.S. had previously accepted almost as many Christians as it did Muslims. “And the reason why that was so unfair—everybody was persecuted, in all fairness: They were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians, and I thought it was very, very unfair. And so we are going to help them.”

The same day he made those remarks, Trump also signed an executive order that banned all Syrian refugees from entering the United States, severely curtailed other refugee admissions, and suspended all immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. In the nearly two years since then, the Trump administration has moved to limit immigration to the United States more broadly. As part of this effort, it has effectively targeted the one aspect of the nation’s immigration system over which the executive branch has almost total control: the refugee-resettlement program, under which the most vulnerable refugees from around the world are resettled in the United States through a decades-old program. (Other aspects require some congressional buy-in.)

There were signs this was coming. During his campaign, Trump called for a total ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, citing terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere as the reason for why the U.S. should be cautious about whom it admits. In policy terms, this has translated into not only a dramatic decline in the overall number of refugees, including Muslims, accepted by the U.S., but also into a sharp reduction in the number of vulnerable Christians resettled in the country.

Indeed, the U.S. set a record-low ceiling of 45,000 refugees for fiscal year 2018, which ended September 30. It resettled less than half that number: 22,491. Of this, 15,748 were Christians (about 70 percent), according to an analysis by Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, a Christian group that is one of nine U.S. organizations that resettles refugees in the United States. In contrast, the U.S. resettled 3,495 Muslims (about 15 percent of the total) in the fiscal year. On the face of it, Trump appeared to have kept his administration’s promise: favoring Christian refugees over those of other faiths. But a deeper look at the figures reveals a different picture.

For instance: The U.S. government says Iraqi Christians and Yazidis face the threat of genocide at the hands of ISIS. Yet the U.S. admitted only 26 Iraqi Christians in fiscal year 2018. The numbers for other Middle Eastern countries weren’t much better: The U.S. admitted 23 Iranian Christians and 20 Syrian Christians. For the entire region, the U.S. admitted 70 Christians—a 97.7 percent decline from fiscal year 2017. (The U.S. accepted 161 Muslim refugees from the Middle East the same year. The corresponding percentage decline was 98.6 percent.)

When Soerens examined the data specifically from 11 countries—Afghanistan, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—listed by Open Doors, a Christian advocacy group, as where Christians face the most extreme persecution, he found that 1,215 Christians were admitted, a 74.5 percent decline from fiscal year 2017. Citizens of some of those countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen—were on Trump’s original travel ban, along with those from Syria. But that ban faced several legal challenges; the one that is now in place includes travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and North Korea, along with citizens from Syria and some Venezuelans. Iranian Christians, in particular, have found themselves in legal limbo, as I reported last month. Nearly 100 of them are stranded in Vienna after challenging the mass rejection of their applications.

It’s likely to get worse. Last month, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, announced that the United States would accept no more than 30,000 refugees in fiscal year 2019, which began October 1. That figure is now the lowest announced since President Ronald Reagan signed the Refugee Act in 1980. U.S. presidents have, on average, set a ceiling of 95,000 refugees a fiscal year, though the ceiling does not always reflect the actual number of refugees resettled in the United States. For instance, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. admitted far fewer people than the cap permitted, though the numbers mostly rose during the Bush and Obama years.

“It’s basically the decimation of the U.S. refugee-resettlement program, which is very troubling,” Soerens said.

What’s striking about the new refugee number is that it comes at the same time the Trump administration is promoting religious freedom around the world. In July, administration officials even convened a meeting in Washington at which victims of religious persecution shared their stories as Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence listened. “The victims of religious persecution face economic sanctions. They’re often arrested and imprisoned. They’re the target of mob violence and state-sanctioned terror,” Pence said at the time. “And all too often, those whose beliefs run counter to their rulers’ face not just persecution but death.”

Yet Trump himself has said he wants refugees to be resettled close to the country they have fled. Of course, the overwhelming majority of them are already placed in such locations. Less than 1 percent of the global refugee population is resettled in the West, and an even smaller proportion is brought to the U.S. (The U.S. remains the world’s No. 1 donor for refugees around the world.) Soerens said that while he welcomes the administration’s efforts to expand religious freedom around the world, the “reality is that we don’t live in that utopia where every part of the world has religious freedom. And while Christians and other religious minorities are facing incredible threats of persecution, the United States should continue to be a safe haven for at least some of the most vulnerable individuals.”

But the administration’s emphasis on resettling refugees near the conflicts they are escaping, combined with the record-low refugee cap, ensures that’s unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future.