A recent news story suggested that the Trump administration has considered another drastic reduction next year in the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States (the annual ceiling), perhaps to fewer than 10,000 people. One estimate suggested the administration could set the ceiling at zero refugees.
This is a continuation of a trend. In each of its first three years, the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country, with refugee resettlement numbers at the lowest levels they’ve been in decades. This is all consistent with some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, which has demonized not just undocumented immigrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers.
Here is a local example. In April, 2016 when he was still a candidate, Donald Trump made his only campaign stop to my home state of Rhode Island. His comments to the audience of perhaps a thousand people have mostly been forgotten, but at the time I noted to myself that they were particularly demagogic. In hindsight, they were another sign of what a Trump administration might look like.
About thirty minutes into his comments that day, he mentioned his views on immigration, saying: “We’re going to be fair. We’re not going to be tough. We’re going to be fair. We’re going to be smart. And we want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally. We want that.”
However, he contradicted himself just ten minutes later, saying he did not want at least one form of legal immigration – refugees, specifically refugees from certain countries. As politicians are wont to do, he read off a laundry list of items that Rhode Islanders would likely disapprove of, suggesting that their incumbent leaders had let them down and that he would do things differently. And then he got to the item of Syrian refugees:
“Now here’s one I don’t like. Syrian refugees are now being resettled in Rhode Island.” [The crowd booed loudly in response]. We don’t know where they’re from. We don’t know where they’re from. They have no documentation. We all have hearts, and we can build safe zones in Syria and we’ll get the Gulf states to put up the money. We’re not putting up the money, but I’ll get that done. But you know what? We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.
No, it’s a big problem! We don’t know anything about ‘em! We don’t know where they come from, who they are! There’s no documentation! We have our incompetent government people letting ‘em in by the thousands! And who knows!? Who knows!? Maybe it’s ISIS! You see what happens when two people that became radicalized in California where they shot and killed all their co-workers. OK? Not with me, folks.”
His comments struck me as not just xenophobic, but entirely dishonest and manipulative. First, he was wrong that there were “a lot” of Syrian refugees resettling in the state. The first Syrian refugees in Rhode Island had only arrived a few months before Trump’s speech: a young couple with their three cute children, all under 9 years old. By the time of his visit, that number had risen to just 26 people (as of 2019, there are now 174 Syrian refugees here). None of these figures qualifies as “a lot.”
He was also wrong to claim that we don’t know anything about refugees. Rather, the screening process is quite thorough, with multiple levels of vetting. Further, it was particularly manipulative to mention Syrian refugees in the same breath as ISIS and the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino California. That horrible incident was perpetrated by a U.S. born man of Pakistani descent and his Pakistani-born wife, not by refugees. And, it was also just one of the 372 mass shootings in the U.S. that year, none of which were committed by refugees. Let’s just say it: out of all of those incidents, it was clear that he chose that particular one to paint Muslims with a broad brush as potential terrorists.
Trump’s targeting of Syrian refugees fits within a recurrent pattern of xenophobia toward a number of groups. For example, it has sought to end Temporary Protected Status for groups living in the U.S. who had fled war, disease, or natural disasters, including people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal. Although it is true that their legal protection is “temporary,” the fact that the administration wanted to remove all of these groups simultaneously – as well as prevent almost all refugees from resettling here regardless of their country of origin – suggests that these policies are more about xenophobia and limiting the numbers of non-white people in the U.S. than just about Syrian refugees’ (unsubstantiated) risk for violence or terrorism.
Here is another example. In January 2016, then candidate Trump first read a poem “The Snake” at a rally in Iowa, which he would read again on several more occasions. The poem’s premise is that a talking snake fatally bites a “tender-hearted woman” after she found it half-frozen and decided to nurse it back to health. Before reading the poem Trump told his audiences to think of it in terms of the southern U.S. border or in terms of refugees, calling these groups a “Trojan horse” for terrorism or violent crime. The obvious message was: “don’t trust these people or let them take advantage of your sympathy; they may appear to need your help, but deep-down their nature is nasty and your decency will lead to people getting killed.”
I think it’s pretty cynical to turn people’s sense of compassion against them. It is true that interacting with new people carries risks; virtually anyone you meet could harm you. Existence itself is a risk. If you want to avoid all risk for interpersonal violence, you’ll have to live in a bunker and avoid people altogether. But the statistics suggest that refugees are not a group with a higher risk for perpetrating violence. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute noted that between 2001 and 2015, “there had been only one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees.” By comparison, they observed, “about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.” In another analysis, Daniel Masterson and Vasil Yasenov of Stanford University‘s Immigration Policy Lab found that a temporary, 120 day-long cessation of refugees into the US in 2017 had no effect on violent crime rates, indicating that refugees are not a risky population.
To go back to Trump’s Rhode Island visit, I admit that it was disheartening to hear people from my home state respond with such fear and animosity toward twenty-six refugees they knew nothing about, who had probably gone through hellish experiences to survive and make it to safety. And it made me angry to hear a politician manipulate a crowd by feeding their sense of fear and demonizing vulnerable people.
Some of the best, most generous human beings I’ve ever met have been refugees. They have included friends, students, and research participants from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan. It’s not a requirement that a refugee be an exceptionally kind person to live here; it’s just a fact I’ve observed. And being from southern New England, I would be remiss to forget the Portuguese from the Azores, who were resettled here after John F. Kennedy spearheaded the Azorean Refugee Act of 1958 after a volcanic eruption devastated one of the islands. All of these people have brought something new to the country. They’ve absorbed from, given to, and reshaped the places they live, which has been the story of the country since… forever.
The total number of displaced people in the world is higher than its ever been. To reduce the number of refugees so drastically leaves vulnerable lingering in limbo, unable to flourish. In my experience, this also detracts from the places where they could have resettled and to which they could have contributed.