The Trump administration is cutting back on refugee resettlement. Over the years, refugees help the US to revitalize its democracy and its economy. The resettlement effort under President Obama served American interests both from diplomatic and economic perspective. However, shutting down refugee resettlement will put the United States at a disadvantage. During the most challenging migrant crisis the world has faced, the Trump administration is going towards the opposite direction, a decision that may cause unwanted and unforeseen strain on the national economy and US foreign relations.
The Wrong Time to Cut Back on Refugees
Amid the world’s worst migrant crisis on record, the Trump administration is cutting back on refugee resettlement. As part of his travel ban, President Trump capped the number of refugees to be admitted in 2017 at 50,000, the lowest number in decades. Now the administration has proposed lowering the goal even further, to 45,000, next year.
Over the years, the United States has lived up to its ideals and brought millions of refugees to safety and freedom. It didn’t become a resettlement leader out of pure altruism. By welcoming refugees, the United States revitalizes its democracy and its economy, helps preserve or restore stability in volatile regions of the world, and builds respect.
In slashing resettlement, the president is taking a recklessly narrow view of how best to put America first. Shutting out refugees would not only increase human suffering; it would also weaken the country and undermine its foreign policy.
There are more than 22 million refugees in the world, the highest number since World War II. Even before the Trump presidency, the United States response to this crisis was relatively modest. In fiscal year 2016, the United States resettled about 84,000 refugees, the most of any year under President Barack Obama. For comparison’s sake, the country took in roughly 200,000 refugees a year in the early 1980s under President Ronald Reagan.
Nonetheless, the resettlement effort under President Obama served American interests. For one thing, it helped the states that host the vast majority of Syrian refugees: Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. (In fiscal year 2016, 12,500 of the refugees resettled by the United States came from Jordan, a key American ally in a strategically crucial region.) The huge influx of refugees into these nations has strained their resources and infrastructure, becoming a potential source of instability and even conflict. By resettling refugees, the United States helps preserve stability and sends a message of support to countries whose cooperation it needs on a range of issues.
The Trump administration’s cuts to resettlement send the exact opposite message. It is a message heard across the region, by enemies as well as friends of the United States. Restricting resettlement, especially in the context of the travel ban, appears to validate the propaganda of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, which claims that the United States is hostile to Muslims. The battle against violent extremism must be fought with guns, but also with ideas. Slamming the door on refugees is a significant strategic blunder.
Opponents of refugee resettlement would have you believe that the country’s enemies are exploiting the program. There is no factual basis for this claim. In fact, of all the people who enter the United States, refugees are the most thoroughly vetted. The screening process is exhaustive and lengthy, and involves numerous agencies. Our intelligence and national security professionals can both vet refugees and protect Americans. Indeed, they’ve done just that for years.
Refugees are victims of extremist groups and brutal governments. They become patriotic, hard-working Americans. Refugees are us. They are teachers, police officers, doctors, factory workers and soldiers. There are thousands of former refugees and children of refugees in the United States military. I served alongside many who were eager and proud to give back to the country that helped them in their time of need.
It’s no wonder that numerous studies have found that refugees are a net benefit to the American economy. The administration’s own study — which the president solicited from the Department of Health and Human Resources — concluded that refugees added $63 billion to the economy between 2005 and 2014.
Support for refugees creates another form of currency for the United States. Call it respect or admiration or credibility, this currency accrues when the United States leads by example and champions human rights on the world stage. It’s an invaluable and fungible resource, amassed over many decades. It enables the United States to forge ties with democratic movements. It also helps Washington persuade allies to do difficult things and pressure foes to stop their bad behavior. It is crucial to forging trade pacts, military coalitions and peace deals.
More than any other resource — including military and economic might — this accounts for American greatness. We sacrifice it at our peril.
Source: The New York Times, Michael G. Mullen, September 29, 2017. Photo: Alfaro Fuente/Nurphoto via Getty Images