It’s hard to say what’s worse about President Donald Trump’s decision to slash the number of refugees the U.S. will admit over the next year: its inhumanity or its dishonesty.
To be sure, the decision came as no surprise. Trump has been cutting immigration across the board. Not only was last year’s refugee ceiling of 30,000 a historic low, but the U.S. was displaced by Canada as the world’s leading country for refugee resettlement.
Next year’s proposed cap of 18,000 would be less than a tenth of the 207,116 admitted in 1980. That historic high was reached when the U.S. population was much smaller, the economy was in recession and the unemployment rate was roughly double what it is today.
But to hear the Trump administration tell it, refugees now impose an unsustainable burden on the U.S.
By any metric, this is false. Refugees need help when they arrive — that’s why they’re called refugees. But they soon demonstrate high rates of entrepreneurship and higher income mobility than other foreign-born groups.
Take a look, for instance, at what happened with those 1980 refugees — mostly those fleeing war’s aftermath in Southeast Asia. There are now about 2 million Vietnamese Americans in the U.S., and in 2015 they boasted higher median incomes and educational attainment than most other Americans. That’s to say nothing of other refugees who over three centuries have helped to make America a font of global popular culture, the birthplace of atomic energy and a pioneer of the digital economy.
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Trump’s justifications for cutting the numbers amount to half-truths and distortions. His concern about the fiscal burden? In 2017, his administration suppressed a Department of Health and Human Services report showing that, from 2005 to 2014, refugees brought in $63 billion more in revenue than they received in benefits.
To make it seem as if the U.S. would still be holding up its end, the Trump administration lumped in 350,000 asylum-seekers with the 18,000 guaranteed refugee slots. In reality, very few of those asylum-seekers will qualify: In 2017, the U.S. granted asylum to only about 26,000 primary applicants.
The White House also says the growing asylum backlog makes it harder to process refugees. Yet a similar crunch in the mid-1990s had no impact on refugee admissions, which remained near 100,000 annually.
The administration claims it lacks the resources to vet more refugees, suggesting an influx of terrorists could be imminent. Yet no visa-vetting program is more rigorous, the U.S. has handled far greater numbers in the past, and the threat of terrorism via refugees has been vastly overblown.
The truth is, the U.S. can admit far more refugees — and in doing so would only advance its values, interests and global leadership.
Instead, Trump plans to slash their numbers while diverting almost $7 billion in Pentagon money for a wall that will do nothing to alleviate the crisis on the U.S.’s southern border. That money would cover the annual budget of the immigration courts 10 times over, funding the judges and administrative investments that would actually help.
Congress still has a chance to hold Trump to account. By law, it’s entitled to “meaningful consultations” with the administration to set the fiscal year’s refugee ceiling — a requirement Trump has flouted since taking office. Lawmakers should expose his administration’s cruel deceptions, and use their oversight and appropriation powers to ensure that U.S. resettlement programs don’t atrophy. Turning America’s back on refugees is a repudiation of everything it stands for, and Trump shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.