Last week, the Trump administration floated the notion of admitting zero refugees into the United States next year. The proposal, which could be solidified into an actual policy recommendation in early August, got lost in all the white noise; in the endless racial cawing by the president, in the build-up to Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, and so on. But, make no mistake, it’s one of the most lethal, and historically destructive, proposals yet to have emerged from this sadistic presidency.
Since World War II ended, millions of people have been granted refugee status in the United States. More than 3 million since 1980; since 2001 alone, roughly 1 million. In some years, it admitted more refugees than the rest of the world put together, and in the latter years of the Obama presidency, was resettling close to 100,000 annually.
Of course, some of that was simply putting bandaids on crises that the U.S. had helped to fuel in the first place — in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Central America and elsewhere — through promoting a number of wars and coups, as well as a development policy that frequently made the poor poorer, that all contributed over the decades to mass displacement. Of course, there was also often an undercurrent of hostility to those admitted. Indeed, when Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, in addition to codifying who could be admitted, it also obligated the president to lay out an annual cap on how many could be admitted.
But in the last three years, things have gotten exponentially worse. Since Trump came into power, the numbers of refugees admitted have declined egregiously by 71 percent – despite the fact that three years ago, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were more displaced people globally than there were at the end of the World War II; a trend that, with ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and the collapse of civil society in Central American nations, surely hasn’t gotten any better in the years since. As a proportion of its total population, the U.S. now admits roughly one-quarter of the refugees admitted by Switzerland or Norway; one-tenth of the proportion admitted by Uganda or Sweden; one fiftieth that admitted by Lebanon. And each year that Trump lowers the cap on admissions, that proportion sinks further.
Now Trump and his nativist advisers want to essentially eliminate the entire refugee program. Yes, not just put the squeeze to it, but break it apart, shatter it beyond repair. To understand the historical enormity of this action, consider that, even in the harshest anti-immigrant days of the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. still admitted several thousand people a year. When Germans fled the Nazis, even though large numbers were, shamefully, returned by the U.S. to meet their terrible fates in the Third Reich, some, at least, were admitted. By contrast, Trump is proposing a complete lock-out.
Unlike asylum, for which people have to make their way onto U.S. soil before applying, people seeking refugee status apply while still overseas in their home countries or in refugee camps to which they have fled. They are vetted, and, usually over a period of years, U.S. officials deliver opinions on the merits of their cases. When they arrive in the United States, there is an extensive infrastructure in place, run by nine resettlement agencies using funds allocated to them by the federal government, to help them adjust to their new lives.
These agencies have a long pedigree, tracing back to the International Rescue Committee, which was founded by Albert Einstein and others in 1933 to help victims in Nazi Germany.
How much each agency receives is largely determined by how many refugees are admitted: With more refugees coming in, agencies open more field offices and hire more staff; with fewer refugees, their funding is slashed and they have to roll back their carefully built-up infrastructure. With no refugees being admitted, the entire refugee resettlement infrastructure, developed over nearly a century, would be obliterated.
This isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a policy that will affect the well-being, the lives, of millions of people over decades. Eradicate U.S. refugee resettlement programs, and it’s fair to say the administration is signing off on the deaths of tens of thousands of persecuted people each year.
Over the years, I have met hundreds of these people whose lives have been remade by the refugee program. Of all the interviews I have done over the decades, many of these have affected me the most.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a young journalist trying to find my feet in New York, I wrote a cover story for the Village Voice on post-Cold War refugees living in the city. Over the course of months, I spent time with Somali refugees in Staten Island, Burmese refugees in the Bronx and Bosnian refugees in Queens.
A quarter century on, I still have vivid memories of the people I met for that story. I remember a Burmese family with virtually nothing who had fled through the jungle for their lives from the military dictatorship, and who insisted on breaking what little bread they had with me. And I remember a Bosnian family – a young mother, Lejla, who had lost her husband to the war, and her two small daughters, Nadia and Belma, who surprised me with their visceral and extraordinary burst of enthusiasm when we went to see the Statue of Liberty.
In the years since then, I have written repeatedly on refugees and asylum seekers: on Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Central Americans, Yemenis, Rwandans, Sudanese, Congolese and others. Their stories are, routinely, both heart-breaking and soul-affirming. Heart-breaking because of the violence and the terror they have experienced, because their stories show the cruelties that humans whipped into a frenzy are capable of inflicting on their neighbors; soul-affirming because of the generosity of spirit shown by those who have welcomed them and those who have worked with them to help them resettle in new cities, learn the language and access the services they are legally entitled to.
Now, Trump’s team is closing the door. It has already declared war on asylum seekers, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and temporary protected status holders, and wants to dismantle the post-1965 immigration system’s inclusion of family reunification as criteria when considering visa applications for would-be immigrants. Heading into an election year, it is about to fully slam the door on refugee admissions, too. It is an act of cruelty so entirely vile that I can scarcely fathom it. I think of those two young Bosnian girls – who, a quarter century later, are now back in Bosnia, their lives having been saved by their sojourn in the United States during the most dangerous days of the Balkan Wars – and I weep for what, a generation later, other refugees in their position now face. I weep for the cruelty we are embracing as official state policy. And I weep for the lost dreams that, in this era of growing, stifling, American monstrosity, are being snuffed out as a part of Trump’s shameful, ugly blood-and-soil fascist politics.