July 19, 2019

The Trump Administration Wants to End the Refugee Program — Congress Needs To Speak Up




Last night, America learned that the Trump administration is considering shutting down the refugee resettlement program by refusing to accept any refugees in the 2020 fiscal year, undermining the decades-old American tradition of welcoming the world’s most vulnerable people to our safe shores. 

By law, the president has the authority to set the admissions ceiling on refugees. The president is also required — by law — to meaningfully consult with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees prior to making that determination. The consultation clause is a critical oversight tool, and was purposefully included to serve as a check on executive authority. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has repeatedly flouted the rule of law and eschewed the consultation requirement every year since the president took office. 

In a joint statement issued last September, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) voiced their concerns about the president’s forgoing appropriate consultation with the Senate Judiciary Committee, declaring, “Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject. An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient.” 

On the House side, then-Judiciary Chairman  Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) — an otherwise reliable defender of Trump’s immigration policies who has since retired — echoed these sentiments, arguing that the administration “has no excuse for not complying with their obligation under the law.”

Appropriate consultation” requires in-person discussion between Cabinet-level representatives of the president with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to discuss the current global refugee landscape, to project the extent of U.S. participation in resettlement, and to analyze the administration’s justification for its proposed admissions. 

One item Congress might want to discuss is that FY2019 resettlement information from the State Department exposes significant regional discrepancies in refugee resettlement. Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute found that with fewer than three months left in this fiscal year, America has resettled less than one-fifth of refugees approved from the Latin American and South Asian regions, but exceeded the cap for the African region. 

Similarly, although Syrians and Afghans account for over one-third of the world’s 25.9 million refugees, the Trump administration has only met about 20 percent of the resettlement cap for the Middle East, despite instituting additional background checks for individuals from the region last year. These discrepancies reflect, at best, a failure of planning and an inability to execute policy on the part of the administration that should be discussed during the consultation period. 

It is also critical that the administration be confronted with the implications of shutting down America’s domestic resettlement framework. Dozens of resettlement agencies have closed in recent years because of a lack of funding, and the impending cuts guarantee even more dramatic downsizing across the U.S. These service providers also assist with the growing number of asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrant populations, and help Americans in their community. 

Curiously, the administration does not see or is willfully ignoring the potential for increasing refugee admissions from Latin America to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to our southern border. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has been a vocal proponent of in-country refugee processing in Central America, which could not only alleviate the asylum demands on the United States but reduce the number of children and families making the dangerous journey to seek protection. 

Evidence against the prudence of a zero-refugee policy continues to mount. It is highly unlikely that the administration considered what to do with over 30,000 refugees in the pipeline for resettlement in the United States right now. Proposing zero refugees is also obviously short-sighted in that it does not take into account the growing refugee crisis in Venezuela, which has already created over 3 million refugees in our southern hemisphere. 

Welcoming people from around the world fleeing persecution is a long-held national tradition, one that even President Trump’s former secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, recognized when he called for admitting 45,000 refugees. Gutting refugee resettlement does nothing to make America safer or help with our economy; it undermines our national security and debilitates our country’s ability to exercise critical soft power abroad. 

Resettling no refugees would be a catastrophic policy failure of this administration. But refusing to consult with Congress prior to making any determination would be an illegal move by the administration. There is no more urgent time than now for lawmakers to demand and restore proper congressional oversight in determining resettlement numbers.