The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Is the Trump administration about to end the US refugee resettlement program?

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refugee protest in boston with oxfam Activists and Oxfam staff protest the executive order barring refugees from the US in January 2017 in Boston's Copley Square. Photo: Lauren Levine/Oxfam

Zeroing out refugee admissions at a time of unprecedented need would strike at the core of what makes America great.

Today, high-level members of the Trump administration are meeting at the White House to discuss how many refugees will be accepted for resettlement in the US in the coming year. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the administration is yet again considering a severe cut: a target of 10,000-15,000 refugee admissions, or a second proposal to completely zero out the program.

Such a decision would trample on our nation’s proud history of providing a haven for the most vulnerable. Refugee resettlement has stood for decades as tangible proof of the American promise to uphold the human rights of all. By welcoming people who have fled persecution, the US demonstrates its belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings and its willingness to be an example to the world of protecting the most vulnerable among us.

But the Trump administration’s threat to zero out admissions would be an abdication of that solemn responsibility—and a rejection of the same values that brought the US into being well over two centuries ago.

Our allies, our neighbors

The number of refugees resettled each year depends in large part on the number of spots the governments of resettlement countries make available. In the US, this number is called the Presidential Determination (PD) on Refugee Admissions and is set by the president in consultation with Congress. Historically, the US has resettled more refugees each year than the rest of the world combined, with an average of 95,000.

From dissidents fleeing the persecution of the Soviet Union to the Vietnamese “boat people,” from people who fled ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Iraqi Christians and Yazidis threatened by ISIS, many refugees might not have survived without the protection offered by the US.

Among the most at-risk people in the world today are Syrian refugees, many of whom risk being forcibly returned to a country where they are not safe; Afghan refugees who are no longer welcome in Pakistan after decades; and Venezuelans who fled to neighboring countries and for whom international assistance is in short supply.

We have acknowledged the unacceptable behavior of the governments they fled, but we are somehow less willing to take the step of offering protection.

The waiting game

Refugee advocates are now anxiously awaiting the PD for 2020. This number has decreased alarmingly since President Trump took office, with the current designated number at just 30,000—the lowest in the formal resettlement program’s history. Even more alarming is a proposal within the government to set the coming year’s PD at zero, effectively ceasing the resettlement program at a time when refugee numbers worldwide are at an all-time high.

Oxfam believes the US should set a minimum target of 95,000 resettled refugees. Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Lofgren (CA-19) have introduced legislation to make this happen, and Oxfam supports this initiative. The bill includes provisions to monitor and support the refugee resettlement program to make this a reality. Beyond that, Oxfam is advocating for future presidential determinations to be set at 125,000 refugees a year.

Why does this all matter? Because the lower the number is, the fewer people in need of protection will be resettled to the US. Globally, the number is seen as an indicator of the US commitment to protecting refugees and upholding human rights. When the US number gets low, the rest of the world tends to see this as an example of the importance (or lack thereof) of the need to protect refugees—and plans their own resettlement targets accordingly.

What zero means

There was a time when the US prided itself on being—at its core—a nation of immigrants who had chosen to come to a particular country, to work hard, and to contribute what they could to the society there. Long seen as the land of opportunity, the US stood apart as a place where anyone with enough initiative could be treated as equal and could succeed. Where other governments were not willing or able to protect their own citizens, the US would embrace them.

It will take all of our efforts to change the direction of the current discourse on refugees and to get the  PD on new, more stable footing with the next administration.

It’s time to start.

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