Back in 2015, the refugee crisis made headlines every day. Fear-mongering about immigrants and refugees arguably shaped the outcome of major elections in the U.S. and Great Britain, and the international community failed to respond adequately to the crisis. Although it no longer makes daily headlines, there are more displaced individuals than ever before in recorded history, with over 70 million displaced people worldwide, 25 million of whom are refugees, meaning they are living outside of their home countries.
Refugees differ from other immigrants because they flee their home countries not merely in pursuit of better economic opportunities, but because of an imminent danger to their lives. Wars in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Yemen, have left millions displaced from their homes. Organized crime and gang activity in Central America have caused a surge in asylum seekers fleeing countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Meanwhile, the persecution of the Rohyinga minority in Myanmar has created a crisis of stateless individuals fleeing to Bangladesh, and the crisis extends into sub-Saharan Africa due to conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Many of these displaced individuals have arrived at the doorsteps of neighboring countries to seek asylum, in pursuit of safer lives for themselves and their families. Despite these critical circumstances, the Trump Administration has made it a central goal to restrict immigration into the U.S., and has proposed cutting refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2020 to an all-time low of only 18,000 refugees.
Why, in this critical moment, has President Trump chosen to restrict refugee admissions to such an extent? If the United States is to continue as an example of ethical global leadership, we must do better. It isn’t unrealistic to think that the United States could resettle far more refugees. We’ve done it in the past. Historically, the United States has accepted over half of all resettled refugees. The 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, signed into law by the Carter Administration, set the precedent for the U.S.’ refugee resettlement program and established a uniform integration plan. At the program’s peak in the early 1980s, the United States accepted well over 200,000 refugees, and the Obama Administration had set the cap for Fiscal Year 2017 to 110,000 refugees before Obama left office.
Contrary to the fear-mongering that some choose to propagate, by all accounts the U.S.’ refugee program has been safe, successful, and beneficial for all. The screening process for refugees is robust and includes screening through three federal departments while refugees are still overseas, making it the most rigorous screening process of any immigration path into the U.S. and ensuring that only the most vulnerable of refugees receive the opportunity for resettlement. Once they are in the United States, refugees receive limited government support and are immediately eligible for employment, quickly reaching employment rates comparable to the general non-immigrant public in the U.S., and sometimes even exceeding the average. In addition, not one refugee admitted to the United States after the 1980 Refugee Act, which established the current screening processes, has ever killed a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack.
The Trump Administration should embrace the legacy of the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, and return to admitting the number of refugees accepted at the program’s peak. Due to the immense scope of the current global refugee crisis, the U.S. must exercise moral leadership and reprioritize its overseas resettlement program to mitigate the repercussions of the refugee crisis.