U.S. military officials worry that sharp cuts to the number of refugees resettled in the country will hurt national security.
In an exclusive report Monday, Reuters cited unnamed officials who said that the concerns stem from the low numbers of Iraqi refugees whose applications were processed this fiscal year — just 48 as of mid-August — and the fear that people in volatile regions won’t work with U.S. forces on the ground if they don’t see a commitment to resettlement.
The Iraqis who have been resettled are among about 18,000 refugees admitted since October 2017, far below the 45,000 cap for the fiscal year, which ends next month, and the lowest since the Refugee Resettlement Program began in 1980.
The trend appears likely to continue.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump’s administration may lower the cap on refugees admitted in 2019 to 25,000, a drop of about 45 percent.
Continuation of policy
In contrast to the Pentagon, “the president tends to view immigration as a security threat — an economic threat — to the United States,” said Sarah Pierce, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
The administration has already lowered the cap twice — first from 85,000 to 50,000 in 2017, and then by another 5,000 this year.
Immigration has become a polarizing issue in the U.S., with some concerned about containing potential threats to the country and others focused on the moral imperative to provide safe havens to people whose lives are in danger.
It’s also an issue that tends to fall along party lines.
“Republicans are definitely seeing immigration as a potentially strong issue for them going into the midterms, continuing to frame it as a security and economic threat. And they’re going to include refugees,” Pierce said.
‘They are our neighbors’
Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, a Republican, is at least one dissenting voice in his party. He has called for raising the refugee cap.
In a studio interview with VOA, Smith said, “I believe that if a person has a well-founded fear of persecution — the boilerplate language for the Refugee Convention, the U.N. Convention, as well as U.S. law — we ought to be there with open arms to receive that person.”
More, not fewer, refugees should be accepted, Smith added.
“I am not for lowering that cap at all. If anything, it needs to be expanded. Because we are a world that is awash in refugees from the Middle East, from Asia, certainly from Africa. And I think we have to be welcoming to those who are fleeing persecution.”
But Pierce isn’t convinced that voices like Smith’s will affect policy, because decisions about refugee admittances, including how many people will be accepted from each part of the world, are made by the executive branch.
“If he was able to get a broad coalition in the Republican Party to influence this administration, then maybe it’s possible,” Pierce said. “But we haven’t seen the moderate Republicans have a lot of strength on influencing President Trump to change his immigration policies.”
At a forum in Washington last week, Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that it takes time to vet applications, which contributes to the actual number of refugees entering the country falling far below the cap.
“There is no reason we should speed up the checks, you know, to get people — for the sake of getting people through,” Cissna said.
“And remember, it is a ceiling; it’s not a quota,” he added.
Concerns about how the United States handles refugee resettlement aren’t new.
In a 2011 report for the Migration Policy Institute, Donald M. Kerwin, the director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, concluded that protections for asylum-seekers and refugees had been weakening since the 1990s.
Among the concerns cited by Kerwin were tighter security protocols that delayed the entry of qualified displaced persons, leaving them in harm’s way.
Now, the downturn in the U.S. coincides with a record number of refugees and displaced people worldwide.
“Internationally, there are actually 25 million refugees,” Pierce said. “So this administration is considering accepting less than one one-thousandth of those individuals, and it’s really taking the United States from being a leader on this issue to a very much a kind of a backseat international partner.”
That might prompt other countries to reconsider their own policies toward refugees.
“It’s certainly not inspiring other countries to increase the amount of refugees they’re admitting,” Pierce said.