What Does Trump's "New Refugee Ban" Mean for America's Immigrants?
Arnold R. Isaacs
On September 26th, President
Donald Trump's White House announced that,
in 2020, refugee admissions to the United States will be limited to 18,000, drastically
lower than any yearly ceiling over the past 40 years. Along with that
announcement, the White House released a separate executive
order intended to upend many years of precedent by
giving state and local authorities the power to deny refugees resettlement in
Nine days later, Trump issued
another directive ordering
that new immigrant visas be restricted to those who can afford unsubsidized
health insurance coverage or are affluent enough to pay for their own
health-care costs. Meanwhile, his administration was heading into the final
days of a planned timetable to implement new
restrictions that would make it harder for
needy immigrants to get a green card and work legally to support themselves and
their families. That plan has been thwarted, at least temporarily, by orders
from judges in three different federal courts.
Those separate but related
actions are the latest pages in another dark chapter in the Trump
administration's anti-immigration binge. Together, they steer the U.S.
government onto an even more heartless course, setting policies that will not
just harm people directly covered by the new provisions but will cause
significant collateral damage.
The local option to prevent
resettlement will stir up anti-immigrant groups and inflame the national
immigration debate, making that issue and the country's racial divides even
more toxic than they already are. In addition to keeping many more desperate
people out of this country, the refugee cutback will harm organizations that
help refugees already here and destroy Washington's ability to persuade other
countries to deal with the worldwide
tidal wave of refugees displaced by wars
and other catastrophes.
The new green card rules, if
they overcome court challenges and go into effect, will greatly expand the
grounds for finding that an applicant might become a "public charge." That will
deny legal employment to many of the most vulnerable immigrants and lead others
to forgo badly needed benefits to which they are legally entitled - a trend
already evident before those rules even take effect. Similarly, the new
requirement that immigrants be capable of paying for health insurance will not
just penalize foreign nationals applying for visas, but in many cases keep
family members already in the U.S., including children and spouses, from
reuniting with loved ones seeking to join them.
These policies have one more
thing in common: none of them has anything to do with "illegal" immigration.
Refugees hoping for resettlement
in the United States are not only seeking to enter the country legally but
doing so through the most rigorous and time-consuming of all procedures for
getting a visa. Those already here who could be excluded from a state or
locality under the new regulations are lawfully in the country, not part of an "invasion" (as Trump calls it) of undocumented immigrants who have crossed the
border illegally. Immigrants applying for green cards or visa applicants
subject to the health insurance requirement are within the law by definition.
The New Refugee Ban, Town
The "local option" giving state
and local governments the right to block the resettlement of newly admitted
refugees in their territory has been the least noticed of these new initiatives
so far. It has, however, the potential for far-reaching, troubling, even
dangerous effects. If the plan survives the expected court challenges and
resettlement organizations have to get written approval from state and local
authorities before placing new arrivals in specific locations, that could
mobilize anti-immigrant activists across the country to put pressure on local
officials, intensifying the politicization of refugee issues and galvanizing
ugly forces in this society.
The heads of two of the nine
national organizations that administer the resettlement program for the State
Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement have been blunt in their criticism
of the local option policy. It "shocks the conscience," the Reverend John
McCullough, CEO and president of Church World Service, declared
in a statement. "This proposal would embolden racist officials to deprive refugees of their
rights under U.S. law. This proposal is a slippery slope that takes our country
backward. The ugly history of institutionalized segregation comes to mind."
In a similar vein, Mark
Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), described the
order as "in effect, a state-by-state, city-by-city refugee ban, and it's un-American and wrong. Is this the kind of America we want to live in? Where
local towns can put up signs that say 'No Refugees Allowed' and the federal
government will back that?"
Details are still vague on how
the local option program would work. Trump's order calls for the State
Department and the Department of Homeland Security to develop the lineaments of
such a process within 90 days, so details may be forthcoming. On the essential
points, though, its wording makes the order's intent unequivocally clear.
A key passage states that
resettlement agencies will have to get written permission from state and local
authorities before placing any refugees in their jurisdiction;
the burden, that is, will be on the agencies to get approval, not on local or
state leaders to initiate an objection. In a curious provision, the document
adds that the secretary of state "shall publicly release any written consents
of States and localities to resettlement of refugees." A decision to exclude
refugees, however, can remain undisclosed.
Only President Trump and his
advisers know whether the primary motive for such requirements was to make
resettling refugees more politically fraught and potentially a more visible
issue in the coming election season. But that is sure to be the result.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah,
president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS),
is troubled by the prospect that the decisions of local authorities will only
be publicized if they accept refugees, not if they refuse them - a twist that
may tend to "stoke xenophobia," she pointed out in an interview, and make it
harder for communities to welcome refugees.
Matthew Soerens, who
Relief's efforts to mobilize evangelical churches on
refugee and immigration issues, voiced a similar concern. Mandating a public
announcement when a jurisdiction decides to accept refugees will draw the
attention of "people who maybe don't want their state or local government
receiving them," Soerens said in an interview. Even if 70%
of the people in a community support resettlement and only 30% object, "they
can make an ugly political issue," he added, possibly increasing the difficulty
of bringing refugees into a community even when the authorities are in favor of
resettling them. "We don't want refugees to come into a situation where there's
been a big political circus about their arrival," he added. Most residents may
be welcoming, but "it only takes a few to make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe."
Church World Service, HIAS,
LIRS, and World Relief are four of nine national resettlement agencies. Six of
them are faith-based. All nine have strongly criticized the new refugee ceiling
as cruel, contrary to religious teachings of love and compassion, and against
American values. ("Trump Puts Out Lady Liberty's Torch" was the headline over
the Church World Service's statement.)
Worldwide Refugees at a
Record High, U.S. Relief at an Unprecedented Low
The unanimous criticism from
those resettlement agencies reflects how deeply Trump's latest decision will
cut into future refugee relief efforts. The new ceiling of 18,000 represents
less than one-fifth of the 95,000 yearly cap presidents have set,
on average, since the present refugee law was enacted in 1980. Actual
admissions, normally somewhat lower than the maximum allowed, are now
guaranteed to fall far below the average annual rate over an even longer period
dating back to the 1940s.
The number of Muslim refugees,
in particular, has dropped in a stunning fashion since Donald Trump entered the
White House, even though, as a recent study notes,
four of the world's five largest refugee crises affect Muslim populations. That
report, compiled by the Refugee Council USA,
highlights how startling the change was for the most deeply troubled countries
between the last two fiscal years of Obama's presidency, 2016 and 2017, and the
first two full fiscal years of Trump's, 2018 and 2019.
The report's country-by-country
figures show that refugee admissions from Iran dropped from 6,327 in 2016 and
2017 to 104 in 2018 and 2019. Admissions from Iraq - where the waiting list
still includes thousands of Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government or
military after the American invasion and occupation of that country - fell from
16,766 to 308, a 98% drop. For Somalia, the number went from 15,150 to 284; for
Sudan, from 2,438 to 201; and for Syria, from 19,473 to 280. Altogether, the
Refugee Council found that admissions of Muslim refugees had declined by 90% in
the Trump era.
Hurting Refugees - and
Those Who Help Them, Too
The cut in admissions doesn't
just harm refugees waiting to come to the United States but hurts those already
here and the people who help them. Because the State Department gives the resettlement
agencies a fixed amount of money for each individual they resettle, the sharp
drop in admissions has meant deep cuts in their budgets. That, in turn, reduces
their ability to help new arrivals fit into American society after their
initial government-funded 90-day refugee benefits run out.
Since 2017, according to the
Refugee Council study, the nine national agencies combined have closed 51
branch offices across the country. That means they can no longer help refugees
in those communities find jobs or offer them language training or legal
services, or assist them in enrolling children in school or obtaining public
benefits they are lawfully entitled to.
If the rollercoaster keeps going
downhill, says Krish Vignarajah of LIRS, it could destroy the network her
organization has created in its 80-year history: "If we lose that
infrastructure built over decades by faith communities, nonprofits, and local
communities, that is going to take a very long time to replace."
World Relief's Soerens said his
agency has closed seven offices since 2017, while halting refugee resettlement
in several others, losing "really gifted, committed staff who have years and
decades of experience." When possible, World Relief and similar agencies have
tried to close down branches in places where other resettlement agencies are
still operating, but, of course, those agencies are now stretched to the limit
Trump's policies also damage the international
response to the growing global refugee crisis. In sharp contradiction to the
spirit of the 1980 Refugee Act, which states that "it is the policy of the United States to encourage all nations to provide
assistance and resettlement opportunities to refugees to the fullest extent
possible," American influence under Trump has moved in exactly the opposite
direction. Instead of providing moral leadership for international efforts to
meet the crisis, his example has encouraged governments and political forces
across the world that strongly resist more generous efforts. As a result, tens
or hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees will be trapped in their
suffering for years longer, waiting for relief that may never come.
Raising the "Public
Another recent Trump initiative
will potentially mean new hardships for a different category of immigrants who,
like resettled refugees, are in the U.S. legally: non-citizens seeking the
right to legal employment who may, in some cases, be subject to deportation if
they can't work.
That group, which includes many
who are related to, or share households with, U.S. citizens, will face new
barriers under a revised "public
charge" rule that was scheduled to take
effect this month until it was delayed by judicial rulings in
three federal district courts. In those orders, handed down just four days
before the October 15th effective date, federal judges in New York and Washington
state temporarily blocked the rule nationwide, while a
more limited ruling in California stayed
its implementation in that state as well as in Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and
the District of Columbia, which were plaintiffs in the same lawsuit.
The new rule is aimed at making
it tougher for green-card applicants to show that they will not be dependent on
public benefits. Its weight would fall entirely on those in the applicant pool
who are already the most needy and vulnerable. Women, children, the ill, and
the elderly will be disproportionately affected, as will immigrants from poorer
countries (who are also more likely to belong to racial minorities). Within those
already disadvantaged groups, the poorer and more vulnerable someone is, the
more likely she is to suffer adverse consequences.
That non-citizens should be
denied permanent residence if they are "deemed likely" to depend on government
benefits is a long-standing provision in U.S. immigration law, not a Trump-era
invention. For many years, though, the "public charge" label was applied only
to those receiving cash assistance through welfare, Social Security disability
payments, or government-funded long-term institutional care. Under the new
rules, immigrants seeking a green card or temporary employment status would be
penalized for using - or just being judged likely to use - a long list of other
benefits including food stamps, most Medicaid services, and various housing
assistance programs, which were not previously held to define the recipient as
a public charge.
Limited use of one of those
benefits would not automatically disqualify an applicant, but would count as a "heavily weighted negative factor." Low income, defined as less than 125% of
the federal poverty guideline, would be another "heavily weighted" negative.
Health and age could also count against an applicant.
Practically speaking, someone
lawfully here could be sent home not only for using public benefits but simply
for being more than 61 years old or having "a medical condition that is likely
to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization or that will
interfere with the alien's ability to provide care for himself or herself, to attend
school, or to work." Presumably, this means that someone legally in the U.S.
who is blind or has some other physical disability would face a greater risk of
deportation. Women would be at a significant disadvantage, an analysis by
the Migration Policy Institute showed, because "they are less likely to be
employed than men, generally live in larger households, and have lower
A side effect of the new rules
(noticeable since a draft was released more than a year ago) is that
significant numbers of immigrants are now going without assistance to which
they are legally entitled. Multiple studies have documented declining enrollments
even in programs not covered in the new regulations or when benefits are going
to the U.S.-born children of immigrants who are unquestionably eligible for
For example, the Agriculture
Department's special nutrition program for women, infants, and children, known
as WIC, is explicitly excluded from
the list of "benefits designated for consideration in public charge
inadmissibility determinations." But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation fact sheet reports
that WIC agencies in a number of states have experienced "enrollment drops that
they attribute largely to fears about public charge." Investigations by
Health Watch, and other organizations have
found the same pattern in other programs.
A Last Thought
Taken as a whole, the latest
Trump administration assaults on refugees and immigrants should shock the
conscience - the words the Church World Service's John McCullough used about
the new local-option resettlement policy. Legally, they are not high crimes and
misdemeanors as that phrase appears in the Constitution. In moral terms,
though, it would not be an exaggeration to call them high crimes and
misdemeanors against humanity. By any reasonable standard they are more morally
repugnant and bring more suffering to more innocent people than any
presidential phone call to Ukraine.
In Trumpian terms, think of it
as MACA, or Making America Crueler Again - and again, and again. Closing the
country's doors to more refugees (particularly if they're Muslim), encouraging
bigots to mobilize to keep refugees out of their towns, making it harder for
immigrants to stay and build new lives if they are old or poor or sick, raising
a barrier of fear that keeps them away from food aid and health care they and
their children need and have a right to - none of these are impeachable
offenses. In a fairer and more humane country, perhaps they would be.