Since taking office the Trump administration has taken unprecedented steps to sharply reduce both the number of refugees who are resettled in the United States and also the number of people who can claim asylum.
This has included significantly lowering what is known as the “ceiling” on refugee admissions to the smallest number ever and placing onerous restrictions on exactly who can be admitted as a refugee. Meanwhile, the administration is implementing several policies of dubious legality that would effectively make it impossible for people entering the southern US border to claim asylum.
The Trump administration’s restrictive policies toward refugees and asylum seekers are reaching a new phase.
In this episode one of the world’s leading experts on refugee and asylum policies is on the line to both discuss the mechanics of what the Trump administration is doing.
Eric Schwartz is the president of Refugees International and also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration in the Obama administration. He has deep experience working on humanitarian and refugee issues, which he summons in our conversation to help put this administration’s assault on refugees and asylum seekers in context.
We also discuss the very real global implications of the fact that the United States can not be meaningfully relied on to advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers around the world.
If you have 20 minutes and want to learn the implications of the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile approach to refugees and asylum, have a listen.
There are two ways that the U.S. has enabled the entry of refugees, refugees being people with a well-founded fear of persecution. The first way is via the Refugee Admissions Program, which is when we look around the world and identify refugees who are outside of their countries of origin but who have not been firmly resettled in the country where they are residing. Each year the U.S. determines how many of those people will come into the country, which is ultimately a presidential determination. By the end of the Obama administration, the president had decided to resettle about 110,000 of those each year. That is a discretionary act. There are upwards of 25 million refugees in the world, so nobody has the illusion that they will all be resettled in their countries. But this is an opportunity for the most vulnerable of refugees.
The second way the U.S. resettles refugees is through our asylum process. People are either at our borders or come into the U.S. on visitor permits and apply to the U.S. for protection saying they are in fear of persecution. Then they go through an adjudication process. As we said, in the final year of the Obama administration, the president made a decision to resettle 110,000 refugees. With the advent of the Trump administration, all of that changed dramatically.
Can you describe the trajectory of the Trump administration?
In the first year, the administration reduced the number to just over 50,000. For the fiscal year 2018, the number was around 45,000. But they ended up resettling only around half of that number. The White House and Stephen Miller would rather have the program grind to a complete halt, which is a tragedy.
When will we know what the ceiling will be for the next fiscal year?
You would hope and expect that the number would be revealed before the start of the fiscal year, which is October 1st. The administration comes up with a proposed number which is then debriefed to Capitol Hill, and then they reveal the final number. In some years, this process does not end until a couple days into October.
There are rumors that they would cut it down to around 1,000.
It is important to take a step back and give you a sense of why this program is so important. This program is a critical component to provide refugees with a solution. Some refugees get to return home, others can flee to other countries to be locally integrated, and for others their only alternative is resettlement in a third country. The U.S. has traditionally been a leader in this effort. That has been important to establish and sustain U.S. leadership on international humanitarian issues. You have to realize as well that the overall number of 110,000 is a very small percentage of overall annual immigration to the United States. This is a very important program and it is successful, so why is it at risk? Unfortunately, the president has decided to politicize this issue. I have serious concerns that given the politics we are witnessing the final number will be very low.
They are beginning to implement this policy, yes. You have to understand this in the context that our president essentially wants to end asylum completely. This latest measure, reflected in an interim rule, essentially says to anyone seeking asylum at our border that they cannot apply if they have transited another country after they have fled their own. That is signatory to the Refugee Convention and Protocol, in other words a country that says we will consider asylum claims. The obvious problem is that this in violation of U.S. law on asylum, which provides that people who show up at our borders should have their claims considered.
One exception is if the U.S. enters an agreement with another country, which the asylum seeker may have passed through, in which that country accepts the obligation to hear the asylum seeker’s claim. The only country with which the U.S. has that agreement is Canada. The obvious assumption is that the country you make this agreement with is safe. The U.S. has been pressing Guatemala to agree to a safe third country agreement. But, the notion of Guatemala as a safe country is ridiculous. The country has very little capacity to process asylum seekers and is not a safe place for Central Americans to be returned. So, the same day that the government of Guatemala indicated they were not ready for this agreement, the Trump administration issued this interim rule that says if an asylum seeker passes through a country that has signed the Refugee Convention and Protocol, they cannot apply for asylum. The most important point here is that this will create enormous suffering for thousands of Central Americans who will be denied asylum and will have to return to their country at risk of persecution.
There is a provision that enables people to overstay their visa in the U.S. if their country comes under some form of threat.
The provision essentially states that if you are in the U.S. and all hell breaks loose in your country, a temporary protective status designation would allow every person that arrives in the U.S. after a certain date to remain here until conditions permit their return.
You have a more global perspective on these issues. Are you seeing this anti-refugee rhetoric exported abroad?
Yes. I think this occurs in a variety of ways. First of all, high level U.S. voices on refugee protection have always been important. So, when you see European governments returning migrants to Libya, where they were subjected to incarceration in awful conditions, in any other administration, Democratic or Republican, U.S. officials would be engaged to press European governments on these basic human rights issues. A lot of immigration policies we see are emboldened by the practices and policies of the Trump administration. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the changed U.S. policies. Think of the final years of the Obama administration. They came forward with this commitment to 110,000 refugees and leveraged that effort to secure much greater commitments to refugee settlement from many other governments around the world. But if you look today, those numbers have plummeted.
In your role of Assistant Secretary of State, you were the one doing that leveraging. Can you take us through your role?
I was Assistant Secretary through October 2011. The commitments I am discussing are from 2015. I can tell you what the exercise of humanitarian diplomacy looks like. You, as a senior U.S. official, with the endorsement of the Secretary of the U.S., can engage with foreign officials even at the head of state level. You can make arguments for refugee protection and willingness not to forcibly return people. You can argue that your government does not condone or participate in such practices. I made that argument to the President of the Dominican Republic. You cannot press that case if you don’t have the high level support or are explicitly prevented from doing so.
Finally, in your observation of media coverage is there any nuance you believe is missing from these conversations?
First, I think that despite the stories you read from time to time, I do not know that Americans fully appreciate the depth of the suffering and anguish that the policies of this administration have created for the lives of tens of thousands of people from the Northern Triangle. And on the other side, Americans need to hear more stories about the resilience and strength of refugee families who are prepared to give up everything to seek a better life in circumstances where they are fleeing the most horrendous kinds of abuses.
Secondly, on these issues the notion on behalf of policies of welcome the stranger, inclusion, honoringdiversity, that consensus has always been a fragile one. We have always had challenging experiences around these issues. What is different now is that our president is articulating and promoting some of these terrible perspectives. That makes the challenge that much greater for those who care about these issues. It also underscores our obligation to persevere.