The New Collateral Damage in Trump’s War on Refugees
The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees they let into the country by a third. That decision could gravely harm organizations that assist those already here.
When the Trump administration announced its intention to slash the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States to the lowest level in nearly four decades, the decision sparked worry among thousands of displaced persons who feared that the nation’s doors were now closed to them. But in addition to the record number of global refugees seeking safety from unrest in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the admissions cap will likely also harm organizations designed to help the thousands of displaced people who do make it safely to the United States.
As the U.S. government slows the number of legal refugees who can enter the country to a trickle, the nine private voluntary agencies with cooperative agreements with the State Department to help settle those refugees must now contend with a potentially devastating budget crunch.
“It’ll have a tremendous impact on the number of people who are able to access these life-saving services,” Nazanin Ash, vice president of policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, told The Daily Beast. “There’ve been over 150 office closures over the last two years, and that shutters a vital resource in many communities across the country.”
An estimated 25.4 million refugees have fled their homelands worldwide, according to the United Nations—the highest recorded number of displaced people in history. As of 2019, the U.S. will only allow an annual maximum of only 30,000 refugees to legally settle in the U.S., down from the previous record low of 45,000.
“This is heartbreaking for us,” said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, a non-profit that has helped settle refugees in the United States for nearly 140 years. “We have so many layers of uncertainty right now, it’s just unprecedented really… there’s no way that this decision makes us a stronger, more prosperous nation.”
Government grants, provided on a per capita basis tied to the number of refugees assisted, account for as much as 97 percent of the resettlement grants for these organizations. Lower resettlement admissions therefore mean fewer federal dollars—and program funding is now set to plummet as precipitously as the number of admitted refugees.
That loss in grant money threatens a funding shortfall that could endanger community-based resettlement offices nationwide, as well as programs intended to help those who have fled their homes to establish a life in the United States, from housing placement and food support to professional support, English classes and community integration.
“If we don’t have cases for case managers to manage, of course we’ll be reducing staff,” Eskinder Negash, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told The Daily Beast. Negash, who served as director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement for six years under President Barack Obama, said that his organization’s main concern wasn’t its financial standing, but its ability to do its job on behalf of vulnerable refugees.
“Our commitment to refugee services and immigrants in this country goes back to 1911,” Negash said. “It’s not about preserving our institution—it’s about not being able to serve those people who need our services.”
When he announced the administration’s refugee policy for 2019 in a press conference on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the 30,000 refugee figure as “expansive,” and said it befitted the United States’ “longstanding record of the most generous nation in the world when it comes to protection-based immigration and assistance.”
Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the president has the sole authority, following consultation with Congress, to determine the maximum number of refugees who can be resettled in the United States, called the Presidential Determination. Under President Donald Trump, the Presidential Determination was decreased from 110,000 in 2017 to 45,000 refugees in 2018, one-seventh of its peak. Even then, the cap is a limit, not a requirement—so far, only 20,918 refugees have actually been admitted to the United States this year.
By comparison, the average annual ceiling has been set at 96,229 refugees since the program’s creation in 1980.
The policy is in keeping with the Trump administration’s goal of discouraging both legal and illegal immigration into the United States, in part due to concerns that immigrants from certain parts of the world would fail to properly integrate into American society. In May, White House chief of staff John Kelly prompted criticism when he told NPR that undocumented immigrants are, by and large, “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society... they don’t integrate well; they don't have skills.”
But slashing government grants tied to refugee admissions would only undermine the objective of quickly assimilating new residents into American society, advocates told The Daily Beast.
“If your goal is to help immigrants and refugees contribute as much as they can to America society, then you would fund these programs,” said Nezer. The motivation behind these reductions, Nezer inferred, isn’t integration. “The goal is to keep people from coming.”
Advocates dismissed the notion—held firmly by the president—that refugees are a cultural or financial burden on the country, pointing to the government’s own studies that have shown refugees to be singularly beneficial to the U.S. economy.
“The opportunities that they are provided here is received with gratefulness and ambition—you get a chance to restart and rebuild in safety and security—and refugees pay back that opportunity in spades,” said Ash. “The administration has characterized refugees as burdensome, when in fact the opposite is true.”
Refugees, Ash noted, have higher rates of employment than many other immigrant populations, their entrepreneurship rates are 40 percent higher—“so they’re job creators”—and are estimated by the Department of Health and Human Services to have contributed a net $63 billion to the U.S. economy over the past decade. (The Trump administration has rejected the validity of that study.)
“Over 80 percent of the refugees who participate in employment programs are self-sufficient in six months,” Ash said proudly. “Show me the evidence that refugees aren’t assimilating! Show me the evidence that they are not economic contributors!”
A decrease in the number of resettlement offices may even even reignite a family separation crisis, warned Nezia Munezero Kubwayo, a community relations officer with the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
“A reduction in numbers and funding could mean that long-awaited family reunifications will never happen,” Kubwayo told The Daily Beast. “Children who have been languishing in refugee camps waiting for an opportunity for a better future will be affected. Every number that is reduced from resettlement represents a person whose hope is taken away.”
Nezer cautioned that the grant reduction won’t just negatively affect the refugees they’re intended to serve, but may foster a sense of isolation and complacency among native-born Americans.
“Fewer resettlement offices means fewer opportunities for people to volunteer and work with refugees,” Nezer explained. “If fewer refugees come, and fewer Americans get to engage directly with refugees, that kind of starts a cycle where there’s less direct connection” with refugee populations.
“As fewer comes and fewer Americans get to have that relationship, then there’s less support for letting refugees in at all.”
Criticism of the lowered refugee admission cap hasn’t just come from refugee resettlement organizations and advocacy groups. In a blistering statement released Tuesday evening, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) lambasted—his words—the Trump administration’s decision to announce the admissions cuts without consulting Congress, as is legally required.
“It is imperative the agencies abide by their statutory mandate to consult with Congress before any number is proposed,” Grassley said. “Yet, for the second year in a row, the administration has willfully ignored its statutory mandate to inform and consult with Congress.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, echoed Grassley’s condemnation on Thursday. “The law is clear: the administration must consult with Congress prior to the president’s determination of the annual refugee ceiling,” Goodlatte, a staunch Trump ally on most issues but is retiring after the midterm elections, told reporters. “But this did not happen this year, and the Trump administration has no excuse for not complying with their obligation.”
Grassley, who on issues ranging from the legitimacy of the Russia investigation to the president’s frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions has normally been a staunch Trump ally, has criticized the Trump administration for its rogue determination of refugee admission levels before. In 2017, Grassley joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, in declaring that the committee’s leadership was “incredibly frustrated” with Trump’s refusal to consult with Congress when White House announced that it would slash refugee admission numbers by more than half.
This time, Grassley’s condemnation came with an implied threat. Noting that presidential determinations can’t be issued without in-person consultation with Congress by a member of the Cabinet, Grassley let slip that the draconian cuts to refugee admissions might now face opposition from an unconsulted Republican-held Congress.
“It is clear by the administration’s action that Congress should take action to ensure the required discussions occur in the future,” Grassley said.
Grassley’s frustrations have rare backing on the Democratic side of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well.
“This is one of the few areas—consultation with Congress—where there is some bipartisan agreement about the fact that the White House is abandoning past practice of genuinely consulting with Congress on refugee caps,” David Carle, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Daily Beast.
Grassley’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment as to what that “action” might look like, but Mary Giovagnoli, the executive director of Refugee Council USA, said that there are many options available if Congress is willing to take on the president.
“Congress can push right now for the President to increase the cap—since the president hasn’t actually signed this year’s Presidential Determination or held the annual consultations as required by law,” Giovagnoli told The Daily Beast. “We need to hold the administration accountable for its failure to meet this year’s cap, its policy reasons for further cutting the admissions goal this year, as well as ensuring that the number, whatever it ultimately is, is actually met.”
Historically, Giovagnoli said, Congress has given the president significant flexibility to set a refugee admission figure that reflected worldwide needs and foreign policy considerations. But when the president refuses to use that authority responsibly, Giovagnoli said, “it makes sense for Congress to revisit the process.”
In the meantime, refugee resettlement organizations are focusing on their mission, at a time when there are more refugees and internally displaced persons than ever before.
“The real issue is that refugees—single moms, children—will not be able to come to this country,” Negash said. “It’s the people that matter—not the finances.”