WASHINGTON — Never say that President Donald Trump isn’t efficient. In one fell swoop, he managed to betray his country’s humanitarian interests, its national security interests, its economic interests and even his own narrow political interests to boot.
Wednesday night, a couple of hours after Trump spewed racist, antirefugee rhetoric at a rally in Minnesota, his minions translated that rhetoric into concrete policy. They announced that in the new fiscal year, which began the next day, no more than 15,000 refugees would be admitted to the United States.
This would be the lowest refugee admissions ceiling since the program began 40 years ago, a record the administration has broken every year Trump has been in office.
Some context for how very low this new record low is: The refugee maximum in the four decades pre-dating Trump averaged about 96,000; and in recent years, the number of displaced people worldwide has grown to new highs, thanks partly to geopolitical crises the United States instigated or aggravated.
Also: Canada, a country with a population just over a tenth the size of the United States’, is resettling about twice as many refugees as Trump plans to allow in next year.
Trump’s paltry refugee ceiling might even overstate our nation’s generosity.
In the fiscal year that recently ended, this administration made clear that its stated level for refugee admissions was merely a cutoff point, not a target, and filled only about half the allowable slots. To give one egregious example: Officials had earmarked 4,000 slots for Iraqis who have risked their lives assisting U.S. forces — but admitted fewer than 200.
Plus, the administration still hasn’t signed the formal documentation to implement its ceiling for the new fiscal year. Until this bureaucratic task is completed, zero refugees may be admitted.
Last year, the administration waited a full month into the fiscal year to process the paperwork; as a result, last October became the first month on record in which the United States admitted not a single refugee. Resettlement agencies have been told to prepare for another extended moratorium.
The United States has taken in those huddled masses yearning to breathe free because, first and foremost, doing so reflects American values. We like to consider our nation a city upon a hill for those fleeing religious persecution, political violence, genocide, tyranny; Americans are a people blessed and generous enough to offer refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable. Just what this country offered so many generations of immigrants before, including many of our own ancestors.
But the United States also accepts refugees because doing so helps our own selfish interests. A robust, strategic refugee program keeps the country safer.
“From a national security perspective, closing the door will not help us,” Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration, said in an interview.
Refugees are among the most vetted immigrants in the United States. They wait years and years, enduring layers of security and medical screenings by multiple agencies. They must prove that they are not only fleeing grave danger abroad but also that they represent no threat to Americans.
Taking in refugees is good PR, Neumann notes; it projects an image of magnanimity in parts of the world otherwise inclined to see America as a greedy, colonialist bully. Keeping scared, desperate displaced people waiting indefinitely for safe resettlement also breeds resentment and greater opportunity for radicalization.
Further, it denies the U.S. government a credible voice when we want other countries to accept, and adequately vet, those displaced by war and persecution.
Though refugees may arrive penniless, often with little or no English- language skills, they have demonstrated remarkable aptitude for economic and cultural integration and upward mobility. Multiple studies — including one written by the Trump administration, which then tried to bury the results — have determined that refugees are net-positive fiscal and economic contributors to the United States. They start businesses in higher numbers than native-born Americans and have helped revitalize struggling communities in places such as Oklahoma City and Buffalo.
Of course, Trump might ignore such broad humanitarian, strategic and economic benefits in favor of his perceived political interests. But here, too, he misjudges.
Americans, including Republicans, have become more pro-refugee since Trump took office, with 73 percent saying it is important to take in refugees escaping war and violence (up from 61 percent in 2016). High-profile conservatives and Christian religious leaders have lobbied the administration to raise the refugee admissions ceiling, not lower it.
The only constituency helped by Trump’s latest cruelty are the bigots and knee-jerk nationalists crafting his policies. For the rest of us, it represents an incalculable loss.