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Admitting Refugees Makes America Great

Iraqi refugee family arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport
Iraqi refugee family arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport
Ronald Newman,
Former National Political Director,
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February 23, 2017

Since President Trump first issued an executive order slashing refugee admissions to the United States this year from 110,000 to 50,000, a certain irony keeps running through my mind. Candidate Trump campaigned on a slogan of “Make America Great Again.” Yet now he is pushing to cut refugee admissions by more than half. I can think of few policy decisions that would make America look smaller or more cold-hearted than closing our doors to refugees who desperately need a second chance at life. Even worse, the decision is animated by a discriminatory intent that is completely inconsistent with our values and Constitution.

I spent the last few years of the Obama administration running the refugee portfolio from the White House, which gave me a front row seat on countless displays of true American greatness. Faced with an unprecedented global humanitarian crisis, I watched America’s commitment to respond grow week by week — in communities around the country, in the private sector, and within government. At the White House, we convened officials from across the federal agencies at the deputy secretary level every two weeks to ensure we were doing as much as we could. We worked to not only meet our refugee admissions targets each year but to increase them, even as we added new layers of rigor to our security screening.

I saw American greatness in the innovative ideas conceived by long-serving bureaucrats who are often unduly maligned in the public discourse. For instance, we launched a pilot program to station State Department and Department of Homeland Security personnel side by side in Jordan, along with NGO staff who conduct initial case intake and medical checks. This program allowed refugees to be interviewed by DHS a week after case intake and screened for medical concerns 48 hours after that. Without eliminating or abbreviating a single step in the process, we cut months from refugee wait times, and with this model, we interviewed more than 10,000 refugees in Amman in three months in early 2016.

Our greatness also came through in creative uses of technology, pioneered by the whiz kids in the U.S. Digital Service. USDS is a team of short-term federal employees, populated largely by recruits from private sector companies like Facebook and Google. Under their guidance, we brought internet connectivity to remote locations in Tanzania, which allowed for real-time transmission of data from the field, avoiding the need to wait weeks until interview teams returned to Washington. We also digitized key forms in the admissions process, bringing an end to the days of DHS officers traveling hundreds of miles to review and approve hard-copy paperwork in refugee case files. By helping to shorten processing times for refugees with acute medical conditions, these measures can save lives.

More than 400 employees at the Department of Homeland Security demonstrated American greatness when they volunteered to help the program. These men and women accepted deployments around the globe to do refugee interviews and performed case analysis to help protect against fraud in the program. With these additional officers who put their day jobs on hold, we were able to meet our 2016 objectives of admitting 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians, and eventually exceed our goal for Syrians.

The United States displayed its greatness as a leader among nations by promising to admit 110,000 refugees in 2017 and pressing other countries to do more to help people fleeing violence. At a conference at the United Nations in September 2016, we rallied the international community to more robustly respond to the global refugee crisis. This wasn’t because there was some narrow U.S. self-interest at stake. Rather it was because 20 million refugees around the world needed a lifeline.

Lastly, and perhaps most reflective of American greatness, we saw countless examples of the generosity of our people, as communities went beyond the call to open their arms to the new Americans we were bringing in. We saw communities in small towns like Mississippi Mills, Mississippi, launch fundraising drives to sponsor refugees, help them identify housing, donate furniture, and simply offer a warm smile.

That’s an America I am proud of.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump attacked the refugee program, which had long enjoyed bipartisan support and had peak years under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (the latter admitted more than 100,000 refugees in every year of his presidency). Now the Trump administration is callously trying to walk away from our 2017 target of admitting 110,000 refugees, which was established back in September by the Obama administration, and unilaterally reduce that number to 50,000, in violation of the procedures that federal law prescribes for setting the level of refugee admissions. The ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center, on behalf of HIAS, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and other plaintiffs, are petitioning a federal court for an injunction to stop the government from implementing this unlawful reduction.

Some have observed that the Trump administration’s 50,000-refugee target is about the same number as Canada admitted last year. But the U.S. population is nearly 10 times the size of Canada’s, making 50,000 refugees an embarrassing goal for the United States — one that diminishes our international stature, undercuts our humanitarian commitments, and ultimately promises to damage us domestically given the economic and cultural contributions refugees make here.

We as a country have strived throughout our history to “make America great.” Unfortunately, the trajectory this administration has put us on seems aimed in the opposite direction. The protests and demonstrations in the past few weeks — yet another manifestation of American greatness — are an awesome start to the resistance, and we must continue our battle to remain the great nation we have long been.

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