Commentary Law and Policy

White House Sends the Wrong Message With Refugee Cap

Hannah Harris Green

While Secretary Pompeo may say that refusing more refugees will somehow reduce the immigration system’s operational burden, this is simply an excuse for more immigration policies that could drastically harm or even end immigrant lives.

This week, the Trump administration broke its own record, by proposing a historically low cap on the number of refugees it would admit in 2019.

The administration had already capped refugee admissions at 45,000 for 2018, the lowest number since the refugee program was created in 1980—a drastic cut after the Obama administration had raised the admissions cap to 110,000. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that these admissions should be cut by a further third, to 30,000, in 2019.

Pompeo justified a new cap by citing the safety of the American people, as well as America’s other humanitarian contributions (often in misleading terms). More practically, he bemoaned, “the daunting operational reality” of the asylum system, saying it “demands renewed focus and prioritization.”

But the Trump administration’s immigration policies have done absolutely nothing to streamline the immigration system, abroad or at the United States’ borders. At every turn, it has made immigration processes more convoluted and austere—and simultaneously more costly to U.S. taxpayers. From child separation, to increasing the length of time people are held in the immigration detention system, to more stringent vetting procedures for refugees, the Trump administration has added complexity and bulk to its immigration system while putting those who must go through it at higher risk for unnecessary harm. So while Secretary Pompeo may say that refusing more refugees will somehow reduce the immigration system’s operational burden, this is simply an excuse for more immigration policies that could drastically harm or even end immigrant lives.

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Who Pays?

After temporarily banning all refugee resettlements last year, the Trump administration ramped up asylum-vetting procedures. A spokesperson for a government-approved refugee resettlement agency told the Los Angeles Times that “There isn’t anything in what we have heard or seen that will make us safer,” in the new guidelines. While the administration wouldn’t make the new vetting procedures public, refugee groups that reviewed them said they required applicants to remember a lot of difficult information—like every phone number for anywhere they’d stayed for more than 30 days, and contact information for all family members. Such information might be especially hard for people fleeing war zones to track down.

And extra vetting—including Trump’s various Muslim bans—are also costly to U.S. taxpayers. A 2017 analysis highlighted in Newsweek suggested that Muslim bans could cost taxpayers up to $66 billion a year if they continue. And the administration’s most recent Muslim ban, which restricts entry for citizens of eight countries, now appears to be permanent.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s family separation policy, which it long kept under wraps, was not only incredibly damaging to the families involved as well as the United States’ reputation—it created an administrative nightmare that’s costing U.S. taxpayers. At one point the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked a parent to pay $1,900 to be reunited with their child. A judge told HHS that it would have to shoulder this cost—the families shouldn’t continue to pay for the injustice of separation from a child. But nobody would have to pay at all if family separation hadn’t been policy in the first place. Customs agents added to the difficulty of reunited families by deleting families’ records in many cases.

The separated children have gone through a terrible trauma and deserve care, but what the government is offering instead is imprisonment. A record number of immigrant children are in shelters at the moment—12,800, according to a September 12 New York Times article.

This month, the Trump administration sought to get rid of the 20-day limit on child detention, put in place in 1997, and instead keep families in detention until their asylum cases were concluded. Beds in immigration detention centers cost taxpayers between $134 and $775 a night, and the cost to the children cannot be measured, but reports suggest it has life-long effects.

The children being detained have already paid a significant price for the Trump administration’s policies. Children who are separated from their families face an increased risk of mental health issues, substance abuse, and cardiovascular illness. Dr. John Bowlby studied the effects of separation from parents on children in a hospital. If too much time goes by, Bowlby observed, children “lapse into despair” according to the Los Angeles Times, “If the parents return, the children seem aloof and avoid the parents’ efforts to comfort and cuddle.” Prolonged institutionalization can only exacerbate this trauma. The physical and mental health damage these children have endured will have an impact on the health system that we’ll likely never be able to measure, and the emotional toll to them and the people in their lives is hard to fathom.

Who Profits?

The Trump administration’s immigration policy is damaging to displaced children and families, expensive for U.S. taxpayers, and has also hurt the United States’ reputation abroad. The only people who have consistently profited from Trump’s immigration policies are shareholders in U.S. prison companies. Stock prices for the nation’s two largest prison companies—CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group have surged multiple times due to Trump’s policies. Share prices for both these companies doubled between Election Day and the month after Trump’s inauguration. And they jumped up again when the administration announced it was looking to expand the immigration detention system by 15,000 beds, and even when it announced it would be ending its family separation policies—shareholders must have realized this would mean the administration would have to detain more children. CoreCivic’s CEO said that “this is probably the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years.”

And while Trump and Pompeo have argued that barring refugees’ entry is a way of preserving American interests, refugees in the United States are actually a resource. Studies show that refugees contribute more to the American economy than most who are born citizens, even though they often come here with nothing.

“Trying to Make a Point”

According to reports from the New Yorker and the New York Times, not everyone in the Trump administration has been happy with the decision to—twice now—lower the cap on refugee admissions. According to the New Yorker, “Some of the strongest objections came from the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of the intelligence community,” when the administration first lowered the cap last year. An administration official spoke anonymously with the magazine, noting that it wasn’t necessary to make an official cap—the government is not required to meet these numbers (and indeed, it looks like this year the United States will admit a number of refugees far below the current cap.) “They’re doing this to make a point,” said the official. “‘Don’t come here. We don’t want you.’”

While the state department seemed to put the brakes on the proposed cap, at least for now, announcing that President Donald Trump would make the final decision on the cuts after consulting with Congress, the message the country has sent to refugees is loud and clear.

When Pompeo announced the most recent cap this week, he concluded, “We are, and continue to be, the most generous nation in the world.” But there’s nothing generous about separating parents from their children, or leaving refugees in danger.

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