Trump's Plan for Refugees

All admissions would be stopped for 120 days; Syrians would be banned.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The Trump administration plans to severely curtail the number of refugees accepted to the U.S. to levels not seen since 2007, according to a draft of the president’s executive order.

The plan would stop all refugee admissions for 120 days and suspend until further notice all refugee admissions from Syria, where a nearly six-year-long civil war has created a massive humanitarian crisis. Once resumed after 120 days, the U.S. refugee program, the draft said, will accept 50,000 people. The U.S. has accepted between 56,000 and 85,000 refugees during each of the eight years of the Obama administration that ended last week. The U.S. was scheduled to accept 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017. The 50,000 figure would be the lowest since 2007, when the U.S. accepted 48,282 refugees, according to data maintained by the the federal Refugee Processing Center.

Syrian refugees will be denied entry into the U.S. until further notice. Last year the U.S. accepted about 10,000 Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war—far fewer than other Western countries. Donald Trump, when running for president, had sharply criticized the entry of Syrian refugees to the U.S., calling them a security threat, pointing to attacks committed by refugees in Europe.

“The U.S. refugee and asylum-screening processes are very thorough and effective, and are very different from the processes in place in Europe,” Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, said in an interview. “It’s a totally different system.”

Indeed, refugees are more rigorously vetted than any category of travelers who enter the United States. The U.S. can reject asylum-seekers on grounds such as health, criminal activity, and links to terrorism. As I’ve previously reported, the process involves three agencies: the State Department, which leads the program, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) at the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services. It takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months or even longer to process a case from referral or application to arrival in the U.S. It’s unclear what the 120-day suspension is meant to achieve beyond the existing vetting procedures. The draft order says that during this time the State Department and DHS will work to ensure “those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.”

“The order would totally derail U.S. refugee resettlement for some time to come,” Acer said. “The resettlement process is a complicated, multistep process. Because of the suspension and other provisions of the order, refugees would not even be referred into the front end of the process for quite some time.”

Acer compared the potential situation with the impact on the U.S. refugee program after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when there was a halt on resettlements in the country. The U.S. program, she said, took “years to recover.”

The draft order also appears to realign the U.S. refugee policy toward claims by “individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of any individual is a minority religion in the  individual’s country of nationality.” This would have the effect of excluding the overwhelming majority of people in the Muslim world, some of whom are persecuted for reasons other than religion.

National security experts, such as General David Petraeus, the former CIA director, and Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, who have served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, in a letter to Congress, pointed out that accepting refugees “support[s] the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.” Restricting their numbers, they added, would “undermine our core objective of combating terrorism.” Indeed, Turkey, a NATO ally, has borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, hosting nearly half the 4.8 million Syrian refugees. More than 1 million others are in EU countries.

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, said in an interview that the draft order is going to be read in the Muslim world “for what it is.”

“We’ve already seen it in ISIS commentary [that] the Americans are out to do in the Muslims everywhere,” he said. “So it sets the stage for the next generation of terrorists. Imagine some kid out there, a 12-year-old now in a refugee camp; that gets played and replayed, and replayed. He knows he doesn’t have a viable economic future. And ISIS or its successor is there with money and a gun.”

The draft executive order also severely restricts immigration from some Muslim countries, suspending for 30 days the issuance of visas from certain unspecified countries. Advocacy groups said, and news reports added, the countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The seven countries account for an insignificant number of people entering the U.S.—though they account for about 40 percent of the U.S. refugee intake.

Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the NYU School of Law, said in an interview the draft executive order appears to suggest President Trump is “keeping up his electoral promises to stay true to his campaign theme.” But Chisti said Trump appeared to be moving away from his campaign vow to ban on all Muslims coming to the U.S. and “more into [banning] … the entry of people from certain countries. … So in many regards, this may sound nationality based. It doesn’t sound religion based.”

There’s precedent for such action, most recently in the form of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) that was put in place after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Twenty-five nations were placed on that list, all but one, North Korea, with Muslim majorities. The program subjected the nationals of those countries to enhanced questioning upon their arrival in the U.S.—but didn’t bar their arrival. Citizens of those countries already in the U.S. were questioned at immigration offices.

“That’s the closest parallel we’ve gotten to this,” Chisti said.

Crocker, the longtime diplomat who is now dean of Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service, recounted a conversation from last August that, he said, reflected the goodwill Americans public traditionally enjoyed in the Muslim world.

“One comment I got in Jordan sticks with me, along the lines of ‘We Middle Easterners have always made a distinction between U.S. government policies, which we don’t like, and the American people, who we see as a force for good in the world,’” Crocker recalled. “This is going to come down as what the American people want, and it'll wipe away that distinction.”

The executive order could be signed as soon as this week.