On March 6, President Donald Trump re-issued an executive order suspending the United States Refugee Admissions Program pending review. Per the administration, the order was undertaken to ensure that refugees “do not pose a threat to the security or welfare of the United States.” Trump said, “We have no idea who these people are,” and that this and other immigration practices put our country “in peril” as justification for his actions. It certainly makes sense to ensure our borders are secure and our refugee program is sufficiently robust to keep us safe. After all, we live in a country with millions of illegal immigrants and what seems like weekly mass shootings (many of them terrorist-inspired), and nothing seems to be stopping them. It is entirely sensible to ask, “Who are these refugees, what is their threat, and will Mr. Trump’s orders make us safer?”
A refugee is a person forced to flee their home country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Broadly speaking, the U.S. Refugee Program not only offers resettlement for “humanitarian reasons,” but it aims to establish U.S. leadership as the moral champion of democracy, individual rights, free speech, etc. Over the years, U.S. refugees have included Bosnians escaping genocide, Yazidi women (from Iraq) fleeing imprisonment as sex slaves by ISIS and Cuban dissidents facing political repression from the Castro regime.
Is it possible, as Mr. Trump claims, that we will be overrun by these refugees and our welfare will be threatened? First, some facts. There were 85,000 refugees admitted to the United States, many of them women and children, in 2016. About half (46 percent) were Muslim and half (44 percent) were Christian. They came from countries all over the world, including China, Ukraine, Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and also Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. At these levels, they will have an insignificant impact on the U.S. economy. There are 123.6 million Americans with full-time jobs, so the impact on the labor market is negligible. Similarly, there are more than 70 million students in America, so it is not realistic to believe they will crowd out others. The U.S. Refugee budget for all refugees is 0.014 percent of the United States’ 2016 budget. Some may argue we should cut back on this amount and others may argue the opposite; but as a matter of reality, our economy and our welfare are not impacted in the least.
In terms of our protection, why does Mr. Trump believe our security is imminently threatened? Or the process broken? Entry to the United States was severely curtailed after 9-11, including through the U.S. Refugee Program. Because a terrorist attack had been committed by foreign nationals, our government wanted to assure that this attack was not a continuing or organized threat to the homeland. But there was no recent attack preceding Mr. Trump’s directive. Nor was he briefed by career professionals of some weakness in our system requiring immediate attention. I am all in favor of a review of the program, but absent an imminent threat or perceived weakness, these entry restrictions seem out of line based only on Mr. Trump’s (who has no professional background in this area) say-so.
Almost nonsensically, the order spells out in Section 4 how Mr. Trump would improve the process. He orders that the program should conduct in-person interviews, checks against data bases and fraudulent identity checks. It turns out that the current process already requires at least three in-person interviews, independent checks against FBI and Homeland Security databases and three fraudulent identity checks that include photographs and fingerprints. Not only does the order fail to offer any new process improvements, but it fails to substantiate what security weakness it is solving.
Unlike in Europe, refugees in the United States are not housed in processing centers for months. Each individual or family here is sponsored by a resettlement agency; many are churches and religious groups. These families are assisted on a day-to-day basis to integrate into American life including help with employment, schools, cultural assimilation, etc. Unlike in Europe, U.S. refugees have undergone a vetting process that takes an average of eighteen months; they did not recently walk across the border with large groups of asylum seekers. The point here is that, in addition to a long and extensive vetting process pre-entry, there is a one-on-one assistance process post-entry that can detect abnormalities.
No one in the Refugee Resettlement Program has committed any acts of terrorism against the U.S. since 9-11. The counterargument to all this is the horrific attack during the Boston Marathon. The Marathon bombers and their parents were admitted through a U.S. asylum program (a different program). A U.S. refugee is pre-approved and pre-vetted to enter the United States in contrast to someone in the asylum program who arrives without pre-approval. Technical definitions aside, the would-be bombers and their parents were not terrorists at the time of their arrival and would have passed any anti-terrorist screening. So, Mr. Trump’s order would have done nothing to protect us. His order prevents people from entering the United States and does not monitor them once they are here, nor does it monitor their children. The Marathon bombers lived in this country for more than 10 years before they were radicalized, and detecting this type of threat requires an entirely different approach.
Likewise with the Orlando Night Club attacker. He was an American with Afghan parents. As Mr. Trump said, if we didn’t let his parents in, he wouldn’t be here. Well, how far back does this argument go? If would-be parents, and eventually grandparents from troubled countries were denied U.S. entry, most of us wouldn’t be here.
What we really have to fear is what’s next. What about the refugees that arrived the previous day or a year ago or a lifetime ago? I pray we do not see another terrorist attack here or anywhere. But experts say it is more likely to be caused by someone who has been in this country a long time and not from new refugees. Will Mr. Trump’s next orders be more draconian restrictions, surveillance of descendants of immigrants, mass deportation camps? I say there is no harm in re-reviewing the program, but the entry restrictions should stop.