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We Should Keep Our Word on Refugees
By GEORGETTE F. BENNETT
JUNE 15, 2017
Syrian refugees arriving in Chicago in February. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
President Trump’s “travel ban” has drawn much scrutiny for its attempt to prohibit citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. But the executive order — which this week was struck down by a second federal court and seems headed to the Supreme Court this summer — has another important part: a reduction, by more than half, of refugee admissions, to 50,000 from 110,000. This provision is bad for the country for security and economic reasons. But it also potentially violates international commitments and American laws.
Years ago, United States refugee admissions were based on geographic and ideological preferences — specifically, for refugees from Communist countries and repressive regimes in the Middle East. The Refugee Act of 1980, first introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was intended to create a more systematic and equitable process for admitting refugees. The act changed the definition of refugee to a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” — and in that way, conformed United States law to United Nations conventions and protocols.
The act affirms that it is “the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands,” including caring for them in asylum areas and promoting opportunities for resettlement. While a previous shutdown of all Syrian refugees resettlement was dropped from Mr. Trump’s revised executive order, a 120-day moratorium on all refugee admissions remains. This leaves vetted refugees in dangerous and uncertain conditions — seemingly in violation of the opening declaration of the Refugee Act.
The law also requires presidents to consult with Congress in setting annual targets for refugee admissions. This consultation must take place before the start of the fiscal year. The only exception to changing this determination is to increase admissions in the face of a refugee emergency, also with appropriate congressional consultation. Given that the fiscal year 2017 quotas were set at 110,000 by President Obama, in consultation with Congress, it exceeds President Trump’s authority to unilaterally change the number set by his predecessor.
The process of setting admissions has now begun for fiscal year 2018, which begins in October, with the recent submission to Congress of the president’s budget. The Immigration and Nationality Act requires this process to include a comprehensive proposal and report from the president regarding refugee and resettlement activity, and in-person discussions with the Judiciary Committees of both houses of Congress this fall. The president’s executive order would seem to violate the immigration law by prematurely and unilaterally reducing the refugee cap. It also disregards the law’s call for extending “special humanitarian concerns” to refugee populations — language that would support enhancing emergency allocations for Syrian refugees rather than decreasing the number of admissions.
The executive order also breaches United States obligations under international agreements. The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees are the precursors to the Refugee Act. They eliminated criteria that limited refugee status to people from certain locations and to events predating 1951. As a signatory to these acts, the United States is bound by their key principles: to not discriminate based on country of origin; to not penalize refugees for illegally entering or staying in the country; and to not expel refugees against their will to a territory where they may be threatened.
The preamble to the 1951 convention recognizes “that the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries,” and requires solutions based on “international cooperation.” This underpins the United Nations High Commission on Refugees annual worldwide calls for refugee resettlement. Historically, the United States has accepted 50 percent of U.N.H.C.R.’s total request to all host nations. In the case of Syrian refugees, that would have meant resettling 65,000 in this country. However, only about 18,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled here since the start of the war. By reversing its customary acceptance of half the U.N.H.C.R. request, the United States is failing to shoulder its historic share of the burden.
With 20 million refugees worldwide — 25 percent of whom are Syrian — a reduction in refugee admissions is also contrary to United States national security interests. The brunt of the Syrian exodus is being borne by Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq — all strategic allies of the United States. Jordan and Lebanon are being destabilized by the sheer number of refugees. Europe, too, is facing political upheaval because of the desperate flow of humanity onto their shores.
Refugees are being left to languish for years in camps or as urban squatters. Children are going without schooling. These conditions create fertile ground for the radicalization that is our greatest fear. By failing to rescue them, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and are complicit in their suffering.
In attempting to reduce the number of resettled refugees, the United States is also acting against its economic interests. Syrians have a track record of success here: They have the highest average income of any foreign-born group and greater educational attainment than the norm. And 49 percent of Syrian men work in high-skilled occupations, including 4,000 Syrian doctors. It has been well established that refugees in general are job creators, not job takers. A study in Columbus, Ohio, showed that refugees were twice more likely than the general population to start a business. At the same time, Cleveland, which spent $4.8 million in refugee services, found that this investment generated almost $50 million for the economy. In studies in Lebanon and Jordan, the International Rescue Committee has demonstrated that every $1 in cash given to refugees results in $2.13 circulating in the economy.
The Trump administration is justifying the reduction of the refugee cap on grounds of national security. But here, too, there is a potential violation of international agreements. Article 9 of the 1951 convention recognizes that in times of war “or other grave and exceptional circumstances,” a contracting state may take “provisional measures” to protect national security. But this exception applies only to individual refugees who have already entered a host country. Furthermore, the United States is not in a state of war and the order would bar the admission of certain refugees with no evidence that they pose a security threat. On the contrary, the Cato Institute has documented that, on an annual basis, the odds of being murdered by someone born in America are 269 times higher than for being killed in a terrorist incident in the United States by a refugee.
This all may seem like legal hairsplitting to supporters of Mr. Trump’s order. But the issue cuts to the well-being and moral heart of our nation. This is a country that prides itself in the depth and diversity of its religious faith. But Mr. Trump’s executive order violates the fundamental precepts of the great religions: to provide sanctuary and care for strangers.
Georgette F. Bennett is the founder of Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees.