Cutting Refugee Resettlement Would be a Strategic Mistake

It is no secret that certain people within the Trump administration have sought to reduce the annual number of refugees the United States admits. On Tuesday, September 10, senior White House officials will reportedly meet to consider how many (or how few) refugees to admit for the coming year before having to report this figure to Congress by the end of the month. Smart money says that the administration will cut the figure from a cap of 30,000 this year (and 45,000 in the first year of the Trump administration) to somewhere between zero and 15,000.

This would be a mistake.

There is a strong moral case to be made for why further reducing an already big cut from the almost 85,000 refugees admitted in 2016 would be a mistake. At a time when the number of forcibly displaced people is at a historic high of over 70 million people, the United States is actively considering bringing its historic global leadership on refugee resettlement to an end. Put another way, more people than ever need assistance, and the United States—long a shining torchlight of hope for the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses—is all but slamming the door.

But U.S. policy is not determined only by morals. Policymakers often have more strategic—and U.S. centric—interests in mind when determining such things. It just so happens that in this case, cutting refugee resettlement numbers would also be a strategic mistake, one that does not put refugees’ or America’s interests first. Since taking office, the Trump administration has gradually dismantled the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). To its strategic detriment, the administration seems to view the USRAP as just another immigration program rather than recognizing it as the critical tool of U.S. policy that it was developed and has proven to be.

By definition, refugees have fled their countries of origin due to well-founded fears of persecution on account of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or social group. Resettlement is the last resort for refugees who cannot safely return to their country of origin nor rebuild their lives in the country from which they first fled. Despite perceptions to the contrary, less than one percent of refugees are resettled, and the United States is one of only 27 resettlement countries. Despite long-standing bipartisan support for the USRAP, in recent years refugee resettlement has become erroneously conflated with terrorism as a reason to keep more people out, despite the fact that refugees are the most extremely well-vetted individuals to enter the United States and are not a proven source of terrorism.

The foundation of the modern-day USRAP was laid in the late 1940s when the United States accepted refugees from Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Religious and non-religious networks of volunteers organized across the United States to help these refugees rebuild their lives. Christian churches of all denominations led the way—and continue to lead today. Throughout the Cold War, the United States resettled refugees fleeing communism from the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, and China. In response to the fall of Saigon, the United States resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who have gone on to play leading roles in communities across the country.

The irony is that of the tens of millions of forcibly displaced people globally, the historic high for refugee resettlement to the United States was 95,000 in 2016: 95,000 out of tens of millions. The tens of thousands of people who the United States has previously resettled have shown time and time again to be invaluable and contributing members of society (not terrorists) in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Refugees resettled in the United States fill labor shortages in key industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, and meatpacking, and make the U.S. economy more vibrant.

But refugee resettlement has not just been in the strategic interest of communities across the United States. Resettlement has also had invaluable diplomatic utility. In fact, recognizing the important role of resettlement in implementing U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 with broad bipartisan support, enshrining the USRAP into law. Some refugees return to their countries of origin when it is safe, establishing democracy, building schools and hospitals, and becoming a testament to American leadership and ambassadors of the American dream. These stories are also a direct and powerful rebuff to the anti-American propaganda of terrorist organizations. Additionally, as regional stability in the Middle East remains of strategic interest to the United States, the U.S. government has worked with allies to curtail the devastating and destabilizing impacts of the Syrian refugee crisis. Before 2017, the United States led from the front on resettlement, with other countries sharing the burden by increasing their resettlement numbers and staying actively engaged in the resolution of the conflict. A critical component of the U.S. strategy for Syria was predicated on the Jordanian government allowing the United Nations to set up refugee camps and permitting some Syrian refugees to work and Syrian children to attend school, something Jordan was willing to do as long as the United States continued resettlement. Kenya has threatened to close its refugee camps for years, only keeping them open because the United States and other allies intervened (in part by guaranteeing continued resettlement programs). Closing camps and instituting tougher stances on refugee admittance and protection could have disastrous consequences in regions of strategic interest to the United States.

Recognizing the important role of resettlement in implementing U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 with broad bipartisan support.

To maintain credibility as a partner to allies that are more directly impacted by large displacement crises, the United States must continue to support them. This means continued diplomatic, humanitarian, and development cooperation. But it also means continuing to resettle refugees in meaningful numbers. This is not an “either/or” scenario; both assistance and resettlement are essential components of support to refugee-hosting allies. Without both assistance and resettlement, countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Colombia, and countless others will struggle to deal with consequences of conflict and displacement, which show few signs of abating.

A common theory is that other countries will “pick up the slack” or “share the burden” as the U.S. lowers its refugee admissions. This theory has been disproven. Instead, there is a race to the bottom on refugee protection among the world’s wealthiest nations. As a result, the authoritarian regimes that disproportionately force people into displacement can now cause even more instability. Some—e.g., the Assad regime in Syria with support from Russia—seem to be doing so deliberately and strategically. As the United States abdicates its historic leadership position on refugees, it has less ability to influence and encourage other countries to take necessary steps to avoid regional instability. The result is that the United States is putting the world—and itself—at greater risk.

Both assistance and resettlement are essential components of support to refugee-hosting allies.

In addition to pointing out the domestic and foreign policy benefits of refugee resettlement, it is worth noting that the cuts being considered by the Trump administration will have long-lasting implications, which future administrations will not be able to easily or quickly rectify. While every administration has made changes to refugee vetting and processing, especially as new technology has become available, the months-long resettlement bans and sizable cuts to refugee admissions made by the Trump administration are unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2017, the United States set an average annual goal of 95,000 refugees and admitted, on average, 80,000 refugees each year. For FY 2019, the Trump administration’s goal of 30,000 was the lowest in the history of the USRAP. Reductions beyond what have already been historic cuts would have long-term consequences to a program that has been built over decades and which involves international operations, interagency vetting components, and a network of service providers across the United States.

Over the last 30 years, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has developed the staffing capacity and technical systems to effectively identify, screen, interview, and process refugees for resettlement to the United States. The USRAP has also invested in a network of national and local non-profit organizations that ensure that refugees quickly find employment, learn English, integrate, and give back to their new communities. This infrastructure serves as a world-renowned model that other countries regularly seek to replicate. The next administration (whether Republican or Democrat in 2021 or 2025) may have differing views on the strategic importance of refugee admissions; but if the Trump administration succeeds in cutting the resettlement number to 15,000 or less, it will take years to rebuild the capacity and U.S. leadership position that will have been lost between 2017 and 2020. In other words, the next administration will not be able to flip a switch and bring the figure up to 95,000.

The cuts being considered by the Trump administration will have long-lasting implications, which future administrations will not be able to easily or quickly rectify.

With forced displacement numbers at all-time highs, the need for solutions is not going away. The United States should meet this challenge by leading on solutions that allow more refugees to safely return home or to work, own land, enroll their children in school, and rebuild their lives in the countries where they first flee. However, even with increased efforts to support refugee-receiving countries (which is similarly unlikely since that has also been a target for cuts under the Trump administration), there will always be a need for refugee resettlement.

The United States should embrace resettlement not only as the right thing to do for people in need but also as something squarely in the U.S. strategic interest. The United States has built the most secure and successful refugee resettlement program in the world over decades and has successfully leveraged it in support of U.S. foreign policy interests. At a time when increasing global conflict is displacing historic numbers of people, resettlement is an asset to be strengthened, not squandered and dismantled.

Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program