The Trump Administration’s Covert Strategy for Ending Refugee Resettlement

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The opposition to Trump’s temporary suspension of refugee arrivals and ban on individuals from seven mostly-Muslim countries into the United States has been swift and impressive. In addition to the spontaneous rallies and demonstrations that have been held in dozens of US cities, prominent religious and faith organizations across the ideological spectrum, along with business leaders, have denounced Trump’s action. The states of Washington and Minnesota took immediate legal action to block key parts of the order in a federal lawsuit, arguing it was unconstitutional, resulting in a temporary halt to the travel ban. Subsequently, more than 40 lawsuitsts were filed against the order. And some members of Congress announced plans for legislation to reverse the executive order.

This reaction is important for several reasons. It represents a strong public rejection of a policy that is likely to be counterproductive in reducing the threat of terrorism. Building on the recent Women’s March, condemnation of the executive order encourages activism by ordinary citizens, in turn promoting solidarity among a rapidly growing resistance to Trump. And the response signals to the rest of the world — especially those directly affected by Trump’s order — that many American citizens reject the politics of fear and discrimination.

While burgeoning political mobilization opposing Trump’s order has been remarkable, it is also narrowly focused. In fact, regardless of the legality of the travel ban itself, the order contains a back-door means to radically reshape US refugee policy — the directive to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to evaluate the US refugee resettlement program. At the end of the executive order is a new mandate to report on the “long-term costs” of the US Refugee Assistance Program (USRAP). The secretary of state is directed to “provide a report on the estimated long-term costs of the USRAP at the Federal, State and local levels” within one year.

This cost assessment provides the basis to make cuts to or eliminate the refugee program based on a finding that it is not “cost-effective” for the federal government — especially if added screening measures and background checks of refugees are required. Trump’s intent to cut taxes — particularly for corporations and upper-income households — will (at least initially) reduce government revenue. This, in turn, will put pressure on the federal budget and increase demand to cut some government programs. Thus, if a need for more intensive screening is part of a revised Refugee Assistance Program, that and other costs linked to refugee resettlement can be used to justify a reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States. That argument will have ample congressional support. Based on this review of the resettlement program, the Trump administration may also argue that states and localities must assume significant costs of the program, given a lack of federal resources. Such a shift in costs to cash-strapped local and state governments will likely produce broader opposition to refugee resettlement.

This is Trump’s real strategy concerning refugees, one that fits with his “America First” rhetoric: to end the refugee resettlement program or restrict the number of refugees entering the United States, except those deemed most “deserving,” like Christians. The executive order can be linked to 2015 legislation, approved by Congress but blocked by the Senate, to suspend refugee admissions from Syria and Iraq and implement more stringent screening. It also mirrors the goals of private organizations with an anti-refugee agenda — groups that form an important ideological and political base of support for Trump.

For years, a small but vocal minority has sought to end most refugee resettlement to the United States, citing the alleged out-of-control costs of the program and security issues. For example, in late 2015, Stephen Bannon, then Executive Chairman of Breitbart News and now chief strategist to the president, argued that vetting and admitting refugees from Muslim-majority countries is too costly — and that the money would be better spent in the United States. Following the executive order, “immigration restrictionists” in Congress have introduced legislation to dramatically cut legal immigration and the number of refugees resettled to the United States. Such currents run contrary to recent findings by the Center for American Progress that refugees make significant contributions to the US economy, revitalize areas with declining populations and expand the labor force as “they seek and find work to make better lives for themselves and their children.”

Opposition to refugees is also framed in terms of the “cultural upheaval” said to result from resettling refugees in the United States. This latter emphasis on culture connects to broader nativist and isolationist views that emerged during the 2016 election and which parallel statements from some Trump administration officials. While this rhetoric may seem extreme, it is directly linked to a fundamental premise of Trump’s executive order: that most refugees (and by extension, many immigrants) fail to embrace “American values.”

These sentiments form the basis of the second key aspect of the executive order that has received little attention: a data collection mandate that may severely restrict access to the United States by foreign-born travelers, students, scholars and workers.

Specifically, under its plans for “Transparency and Data Collection,” the order directs the attorney general and secretary of Homeland Security to collect data and issue biannual reports on “the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals.” In other words, it directs the federal government to collect this data on all non-US citizens living in the United States. This mandate would apply to millions of people: not only refugees, but also those with visas and green cards. The executive order does not address how such data would be collected and how foreign nationals would be tracked — issues that should concern civil libertarians and those concerned with existing government domestic surveillance efforts.

Such monitoring could soon lead to the exclusion from the United States of individuals seeking refugee status or visas for work or university study based solely on their nationality. For example, based on this new reporting, if the federal government claimed that rates of gender-based violence were “high” among a specific foreign-born national group, that data could be used to restrict or deny this population entry to the United States. How such determinations might be made, and by whom, is not explained in the order; nor does it clarify why gender-based violence will be used as a litmus test, versus other behavior.

Here, the notion of foreigners as “outsiders” — with a suspect commitment to “American values” — is a crucial premise. The order assumes that many refugees and “foreign nationals” coming to the United States — especially from Muslim-majority countries — cannot be integrated into US society, given their existence as the cultural “other” (and their alleged dependence on public services and welfare).

Ann Corcoran, who runs the blog Refugee Resettlement Watch, suggests that US communities are “targeted” by the federal refugee resettlement program, while US immigration policy “has opened America’s doors to an alien culture.” Bannon has also emphasized nativism and sovereignty as core American values when discussing refugee resettlement. And Breitbart News has cited Corcoran and her organization in its anti-refugee (and anti-immigrant) diatribes. Such attacks fit neatly with the idea — articulated by Bannon and Trump — that large numbers of “native-born Americans” cannot find good jobs in part because of too many immigrants and refugees.

In recent years, Congress has passed legislation limiting access to social services for immigrants with legal residence and work permits, and has also attempted to restrict refugee resettlement. The election of Donald Trump has brought anti-immigrant/anti-refugee views directly to the Oval Office. While key provisions of the executive order are not well defined, it represents a dramatic shift in decades of refugee policy and the values of the United States as a refuge.

Reaction to the most egregious aspects of Trump’s plan should not eclipse its hidden agenda, one that gives expression to exclusionary and nativist impulses. Turning away those fleeing persecution will exacerbate the challenges of conflict and globalization, undermine US security and weaken its standing in the world.