'Department Of Swagger' Fails First Test On Refugees

This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a further retreat from U.S. leadership on refugee protection, reducing the cap on refugee admissions next year to 30,000. That’s down 80,000 from the last year of the Obama administration. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has played a leading role protecting refugees, reflecting broad bipartisan support for policies that provided safe haven to those fleeing religious and political persecution. Government officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations have backed this program because it allows careful vetting of applicants for admission while they are still outside the U.S. and places an annual cap on the number who can be admitted.

In a brief statement attempting to justify the administration’s humanitarian retreat, Secretary of State Pompeo stressed that refugee-admission numbers are not the “sole barometer” of the administration’s commitment to humanitarian concerns. He rightly stated that the U.S. continues to provide generous financial support to the United Nations and various refugee relief organizations—more than any other country in the world.

But he was disingenuous at best when he sought to conflate the refugee-admission process with the challenges associated with a backlog in the processing of applications for political asylum.  The latter are cases of people who have come into the U.S. as students, tourists, or with no visa at all. Once here, they have petitioned our government for permission to stay, asserting that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they are forced to return to their home countries. U.S. immigration authorities routinely criticize the asylum process, saying that these people have “cut in line” and not followed the regular refugee-admission process. Now Secretary Pompeo and the administration are on the road to dismantling that process altogether.

Decades ago, Congress and the White House approached refugee issues in an ad hoc fashion. In 1956, the U.S. admitted more than 40,000 Hungarians fleeing Soviet repression. In the years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the U.S. welcomed about 400,000 Cuban refugees. And in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. admitted more than 200,000 Soviet Jews.

In 1980, as the U.S. responded to the Indochinese refugee crisis, Congress adopted the Refugee Act, which regularized the system of refugee admissions. The following year the U.S. accepted more than 200,000 refugees under this new program.  In each of the last 38 years, Congress and the administration have set generous ceilings on refugee admissions. In the administration of George W. Bush, the ceiling was 70,000, until his last year, when the number was raised to 80,000.  And in President Obama’s last year in office, the administration proposed and Congress supported a cap of 110,000, reflecting the escalating refugee crisis in the world.

Today there are more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world, the largest such population since World War II. They are fleeing from wars in Syria and Yemen; forced exile in places like Myanmar, where more than one million Rohingya, a minority ethnic group, have fled violent attacks; and political chaos in Venezuela, among other countries.

In the face of this escalating crisis, the Trump administration retreated dramatically. It lowered the refugee ceiling to 45,000 in the current fiscal year, and after 11 months, has actually admitted only 20,000.  The hard numbers tell the story. As of August 31, the U.S. has taken just 60 refugees from Syria, a country devastated by seven years of war and repression. Admissions of the Rohingya are down 40%, even though more than 700,000 were forced to flee their homes in the last year in what the UN now calls a pattern of crimes against humanity and genocide. The list goes on.

It was only last week that Secretary Pompeo inaugurated his new Instagram account with a bold pronouncement that it is time to re-brand the State Department the “Department of Swagger.”  In his second post, he elaborated on this suggestion. “Shakespeare was the first to use swagger, General Patton had his swagger stick,” he said. “At @statedept we have confidence in American values.” Rather than abandoning U.S. humanitarian leadership in the world, there is no more important place to apply American values than to our refugee admissions policy.