-Conference Remarks, David L. Phillips/
Boston College, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences/
October 26, 2018/
Photo:Moises Castillo/AP- The Trump administration has adopted a policy towards refugees that undermines America’s historic role as a sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. Its policy on migration is discriminatory and politicized. Trump’s approach discredits American values, undermining the United States as a “shining city on a hill” – a beacon for freedom-loving people everywhere.
It is also a departure from US policy. The United States Refugee Act of 1980 was created to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to the US of refugees on humanitarian grounds, and to provide provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.
The US commitment to refugees was reaffirmed by President Ronald Reagan in 1980 who vowed to “continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and to “continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”
Trump has systematically scorned this tradition, hurting people and discrediting America in the eyes of the world. According to the Department of Homeland Security: “What we’re trying to do is make it a fair system, secure the borders, put Americans first and reform it in a way that keeps America safe.”
The need for care and compassion could not be greater. Today, 69 million people are displaced by violent conflict. In callous response, however, the Trump administration has erected a visible and invisible wall that keeps people out and kicks people out through a series of executive orders and procedural moves.
When Trump came into office, the US cap for refugee admissions was 110,000 persons. His first year, Trump reduced the cap to 50,000, before cutting it further to 45,000. The administration announced a further reduction of 30,000 for 2019.
In practice, the numbers are even lower. Nine months after Trump became president, the US had resettled just 14,887 refugees. As of September, just 60 refugees from Syria had been allowed into the United States in 2018.
In a display of populist demagoguery, Trump announced “extreme vetting.” The US always applied a strict security review to refugee applicants, typically took several years to complete.
Trump says the cutback in refugees was needed because of a backlog of 800,000 asylum seekers. In the past, asylum seekers and refugees were treated as two separate categories of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Under international law, countries are obligated to have a procedure in place for reviewing the applications of asylum seekers.
The Trump administration has dramatically increased “law enforcement” to deter people from coming to the US. Since Trump came into office, there has been a sharp rise in the arrests of undocumented immigrants. Families have been separated to deter them from coming. US border officials regularly deny access to the US asylum process, in violation of US law, to migrants who express a fear of returning home or who request asylum.
The Department of Justice has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry. It prosecutes 100% of these cases, including those of asylum-seekers. It is now also government policy to separate children from their parents at the border.
It is nearly impossible for those who have no legal recourse in their home countries, and who are fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence, to secure asylum in the United States or even to make an asylum claim and avoid expedited removal.
The so-called caravan of Hondurans, which Trump says is made up of gang members and Middle Easterners, actually includes mostly of women and children with a well-founded fear of prosecution is their home countries.
The US has adopted other discriminatory administrative measures. The Trump administration eliminated the Central American Minors program, which allowed refugee children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to enter the US to join their parents, who are in the country legally.
It terminated temporary protected status for 200,000 El Salvadorans, 57,000 Hondurans, 50,000 Haitians, and smaller numbers of Nicaraguans, Sudanese and Nepalese.
It ended Deferred Enforced Departure (deferral of removal) for 4,000 Liberians who fled to the United States more than 20 years ago.
US migrant policy is also discriminatory, with executive orders and new administrative regulations affecting how the US welcomes and evaluates immigrants.
The State Department moved to formally require all applicants for visas and legal residency in the US to submit five years of phone records and social media history.
The Commerce Department will add a question inquiring about citizenship to the 2020 Census, a move that will lead to the undercounting of immigrant communities.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would no longer release pregnant immigrants from detention, paving the way for more pregnant women to be held in lengthy custody awaiting immigration proceedings.
The Justice Department settled a lawsuit with West Palm Beach over sanctuary city policies, requiring that local officials cooperate more fully with federal immigration authorities.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions asserts he could single-handedly overrule requests by an immigrant to pause deportation proceedings until an immigrant is done pursuing legitimate claims to stay in the US.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has new rules tightening the ability of employers to secure high-skilled visas for foreign workers.
Trump vows to build border wall, using military resources if Congress does not appropriate the funds.
My great-grandparents came to the United States in 1898 as refugees from Minsk. Their shtetl was burned to the ground and they were forced to flee the pogroms. They settled in the lower east side of Manhattan. My great-grandmother sewed shirts that my great-grandfather sold them off the back of a pushcart. They built a business that became the largest shirt-maker in America.
They felt joy seeing the Statue of Liberty and being welcomed at Ellis Island. They would be ashamed by Trump’s America, which treats refugees as scum and migrants as criminals.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is an Overseer of the International Rescue Committee, America’s largest non-sectarian aid agency. His father founded the American Jewish World Service. This article was adapted from remarks delivered at Boston College conference on refugees and migration.