On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that will freeze the entire U.S. refugee program for several months, while ending the Syrian refugee program indefinitely. Long-term, President Trump plans to cut the total number of refugees admitted annually from around the world by more than half, from a max of 110,000 currently to 50,000 in the future.
President Trump has also temporarily banned visitors and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria and Iraq, even though, as many commentators have pointed out, no recent Jihadist terrorist incidents in the U.S. featured individuals originating from any of those countries. Several courts have issued partial stays on the parts of the Executive Order dealing with permanent residents from the seven countries, and the order as a whole is being challenged in court as of this writing.
The History of the U.S. Refugee Program
There’s a lot to say about the many things that are wrong with the seven country visitor ban, but we’ll save that for another time. Here I want to focus on the history of the U.S. Refugee program — and on Syrian refugees in particular. By freezing the Refugee program and refusing to accept Syrian refugees, the U.S. under President Donald Trump is turning away from a proud history of American hospitality, and disavowing any responsibility for the conditions that have led millions of people to be displaced from their home country.
The Refugee Ban will be ineffective at stopping terrorism; it also flies in the face of more than sixty years of policy and experience with refugee resettlement. It suggests we as a people are becoming smaller, morally and politically, based on a rationale that at best is incoherent and at worst is just a lie.
While President Trump has never been particularly honest about his own views of the Iraq War, on a few occasions he has correctly alluded to the fact that the roots of the conflict in Syria can be traced back to the destabilization of the region that followed the ill-fated U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, President Obama’s encouragement of a popular uprising against Assad, beginning in 2011, helped nudge forward the events that have followed. We did not make the mess in Syria, but we are undoubtedly involved; we helped make the mess, so we should help to fix it.
Hospitality and a willingness to welcome refugees has a long and proud tradition in U.S. law. Some of the most important laws include the Displaced Persons Act (1948), the Refugee Relief Act (1953), the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), and the Refugee Act of 1980. All told, these various acts have been responsible for the admission of more than 4 million total refugees to the U.S. between 1948 and 2009.
The large Cuban American population in Florida, the Laotian and Hmong populations in the upper Midwest, and a sizable chunk of America’s Vietnamese and Korean populations are the result of those policies. If you know Vietnamese people who entered the country before about 1990, chances are they came in as refugees. And while there might on occasion be some grumbling about these communities, by and large it’s pretty clear that these were successful refugee resettlement projects. The combination of government agencies and non-governmental agencies — such as, in the Hmong case, the Lutheran Church — worked together to help these new immigrants find a place for themselves in American society.
A Moral Responsibility to Admit Refugees
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. has felt a moral responsibility to admit these refugees, particularly from nations where the U.S. itself had been involved in creating the problems that led to civil conflict. Thus, the U.S. was especially open to immigrants from Korea in the wake of the Korean War in the early 1950s, and then again to refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the war in Vietnam ended in the early 1970s.
According to State department data, we admitted more than a half million refugees from Asia between 1975 and 1981, and continued to admit large numbers of Asian refugees through the 1990s (1975-1999: total 1.3 million Asian refugees). Starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, we were admitting tens of thousands of refugees from various conflict areas in the former Soviet Union — a total of 500,000 refugees between 1988 and 2001. Up until 2001, it was common, even routine, for the U.S. to admit more than 100,000 refugees a year from all over the world; that number dropped dramatically during the early years of the Bush Administration before rising back to approximately that earlier number in the final years of Obama.
During the peak years of the Refugee program, it was seen not as a liberal policy but rather as a proud advertisement for America as a place of freedom and openness that was supported by conservatives: it made America look good. And it’s worth remembering that many of the people admitted as refugees, first from Germany, then from Communist Countries (especially the USSR), and then from Asian countries where the U.S. had been militarily involved — were all seen initially as of the same nationality as our “Enemy,” though it was obvious to everyone that there were millions of Vietnamese who were not Communists, etc.
Any rational assessment of the current situation would show that our “Enemy” in the Middle East now is ISIS and a handful of other Jihadist groups, not “Islam,” though Donald Trump, who infamously declared that “Islam Hates Us” last year, does not appear able to make that distinction. Many journalists have pointed out that the U.S. military has been working closely with the Iraqi government and army to take down ISIS in northern Iraq; we will be similarly dependent on the support of local people if we are to do the same in Syria.
A Responsibility to Our Allies
While we heard a good deal last year about the political crisis European nations have been having over Syrian refugees, it’s worth starting by noting that by far, the countries that are currently holding the largest numbers of refugees are in the Middle East itself. The numbers are mind-boggling: Turkey has 2.75+ million refugees, Lebanon has more than a million refugees, and Jordan has 1.25 million refugees — only 600,000 of whom are officially registered. Germany and Greece have both taken in nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees each. Canada, our neighbor to the north that has 1/10th the population of the U.S., has taken in 30,000 Syrian refugees. (They have done exceptionally well; read this recent profile of a Syrian refugee family in Canada.)
Meanwhile, as of November 2016, the U.S. had taken in and resettled a grand total of 13,000 Syrian refugees. Given the scale of what other countries are doing to alleviate the sufferings of Syrians in refugee camps in neighboring countries, the number is laughably small. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to the refugees themselves to do more, arguably we have a responsibility to our allies — especially countries like Turkey and Jordan — to alleviate the immense strain that is being placed on them by the huge influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict.
The refugee ban is especially disappointing given the history of American generosity at earlier moments. Because of that history, we have a highly developed capacity to absorb new immigrants and resettle refugees around the country. I mentioned the very robust network of organizations around the country that have been helping to resettle refugees for decades; there is a powerful and effective infrastructure in place to help refugees become Americans. These people, who have fled for their lives often because of civil conflicts we helped to create, need us to continue to use it.
* * *