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The U.S. is already doing far less for refugees than most developed nations and the latest reduction, from 45,000 to 30,000 refugees, does not even come close to reflecting the actual number who end up being admitted

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

In a new blow to thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and war, as well as extreme living conditions, the Trump administration announced on Monday that it will lower the limit of refugees admitted to the United States from 45,000 to 30,000.

MIKE POMPEO: We propose resettling up to 30,000 refugees under the new refugee ceiling, as well as processing more than 280,000 asylum seekers. The improved refugee policy of this administration serves the national interest of the United States, and expands our ability to help those in need all around the world. We will continue to assist the world’s most vulnerable while never losing sight of our first duty: serving the American people. We are and continue to be the most generous nation in the world. Thank you all for your attention.

SHARMINI PERIES: Well, Hans Van de Weerd disagrees.

HANS VAN DE WEERD: The U.S. has always had a global leadership role. And because it set the trend for resettlement, for overseas assistance, many countries would follow. But unfortunately we see now the same trend happening when the U.S. sets a bad example. So countries in the region that are basically saying, well, why would we have to step up our efforts if you are not? If you see what is happening in Europe, the border policies of the European Union, the way that people like Viktor Orban are operating, they’re straight from the playbook of the Trump administration. So we basically see now a global race to the bottom when it comes to border policies.

SHARMINI PERIES: He is the International Rescue Committee’s vice president of U.S. programs. Now, this is the lowest refugee limit since such limits were instituted in 1980. Also, it is less than a third of the 110,000 limit that had been in place during the last years of the Obama administration.

Joining me now to discuss the latest changes in the Trump administration’s handling of refugees is Stephanie Stephens. Stephanie is the campaign manager for We Are All America, which upholds the nation’s commitment to welcome and protect those seeking freedom, safety, and refuge in the United States. Stephanie, I thank you so much for joining us.

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Absolutely. My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Stephanie, let’s start off with how lowering the limit from 45,000 to 30,000 will affect the lives of refugees that are trying to reunite with people that are already in the United States, as well as it what will it mean in terms of the number of people out there trying to come and find refuge in the United States?

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Well, I will say that although the limit, the cap, has been set apparently at 30,000 that doesn’t necessarily mean the United States will receive 30000 refugees. We know that 45,000 was the number the Trump administration set last fiscal year. And as we’re only a few weeks away from the end of the fiscal year, we would be lucky to resettle 21,000 of that number. So if the lowering of this number doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how many refugees we will receive. And certainly it’s an abdication of our role on the international stage when it comes to issues of refugees and migration, and it’s part of a long line of attacks against refugee resettlement that’s taken place by Trump and the administration since inauguration.

SHARMINI PERIES: Stephanie, given that there are 70 million refugees worldwide according to the United Nations, 30,000 is simply a tear in the bucket of the problem. Tell us what this insufficient number will mean to the number of people that are out there seeking refuge.

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Well, I think what it means for people who are currently in the backlog that have already been vetted and were expected to come this year, it means a longer wait. And it means the possibility of death. We’re talking about a life or death program. And the refugees that come through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and which the United States takes are the cases which are the most dire, and the cases where there really is no other option. And the United States needs to do both support for the refugees overseas and also resettle as part of our tradition, our bipartisan tradition. Resettle those refugees that cannot be placed elsewhere in the United States.

So what we’ll see is the continued dire situation for the people overseas. We’ll see families continue to be separated, because this has affected follow to join applications, in which a family member will have arrived already and the other one is still in the camp. And it will impact the infrastructure for refugee resettlement so that in the future if that number returned to its historic average of 95,000, we may not have the capacity or the infrastructure to actually resettle folks in those numbers. So it has a lot of implications both overseas and for people in the country already, and for the system of welcome that we’ve worked 30 years to build.

SHARMINI PERIES: Stephanie, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the lowering of the numbers from 45 to 30,000 by pointing out that U.S. is processing a backlog of 800,000 asylum seekers. What is your reaction to that argument? As well as in the process tell us about the difference between refugees and asylum seekers.

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Certainly. So a refugee, according to our definition in the United States, is somebody who has left their country of origin and is processed through an official channel, the UN High Commission on Refugees, overseas. And that person or family is brought here through those official channels from overseas. An asylum seeker is essentially a refugee who first applied for their status once they’re in the United States. So asylum is a process where refugees actually come here and then are processed once they’re inside the United States. So the difference is someone who is processed abroad and someone who is processed here.

Asylum seekers and refugee applications are processed within separate departments of USCIS, both of which are fully funded. And there is no reason to rob Peter to pay Paul in this instance. They’re trying to pit asylum seekers against refugees. But there is absolutely no need for that. The United States has the resources to do both.

SHARMINI PERIES: Stephanie, another rationale that the Trump administration has used to limit refugees is there are security concerns. Trump has repeatedly suggested that admitting refugees represents a danger for U.S. citizens because of crime, and because of the danger of accidentally admitting terrorists to the United States. What’s your reaction to that argument?

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Well, refugees are the most vetted of all groups that come through the United States immigration system, and have been for years. And that definition is absolutely inaccurate. In fact, Trump put admissions on hold for four months as soon as he took office during his travel ban, and all refugee admissions were on hold while the whole system of vetting became extreme vetting, and people had to reapply for their status as refugees and go through our system all over again. And so not only were they before the most vetted of all groups coming into the United States but now there are even more- there’s even more vetting that is being applied to refugees. So that simply isn’t the case.

SHARMINI PERIES: Stephanie, this numbers game we’re playing in terms of setting a target, we actually as a nation never meet that target, whether it’s 110, whether it’s 45 or 30, because of all kinds of administrative loopholes that people have to get through, and the kind of resources needed to actually process these applications, and the defunding that has been taking place in some of these institutions that have the responsibility to process them. Give us a sense of what that looks like.

Certainly. Well, in the past we’ve never met exactly that goal. But if you look back in the last 10 years we’ve been very close to meeting that goal, within a few thousand refugees. And this time what we’re seeing is these red tape measures slowing down processing so much that we’re barely able to meet half of the number. And what we believe that is meant to do is to then go back the next year, the subsequent year, and say we don’t have the ability to process this many refugees, and to continue lowering this number. Because what we’re seeing is the decimation of the refugee resettlement program, and the willful decimation, at that.

So these numbers, while it is a cap, has always been considered a goal. Administrations have strived to meet that goal. And in fact, what you see near the end of a fiscal year is that usually they ramp up efforts to try to get as close as possible to that goal. And this year they’ve done exactly the opposite, lowering the number of circuit rides, which are the folks who go overseas and vet refugees, and really slow down the process as much as possible. It’s almost, like Hans says, a race to the bottom.

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Stephanie, thus far we’ve been talking about numbers, and of course the administrative processes, and how the U.S. handles and decides on the limits, and so forth. But the human cost of all of this, the family separation, the families torn apart, you know, losing people, losing children, losing track of children in the process. Tell us about the human cost of all of this.

STEPHANIE STEPHENS: Absolutely. So I work with organizations on the ground. We have organizers in nine states working to return bipartisan support that we know is actually there among the general public. And I work a lot with folks who are in direct contact with refugees all across the country. I can tell you stories of a refugee who had been waiting and waiting to arrive to the United States to join her father. And in fact, instead of going to join her father at the airport, because of all the security vetting that was put in place and the delay in her application, she went to her father’s funeral. We have a refugee here in Portland, Oregon who is separated from her four children who are still in a refugee camp. So this has a real impact on people not only that are arriving in the dire situation in their countries of origin, but people who are already here, on their way to becoming new Americans.

And We Are All America as a campaign believes that this is not where the majority of our country is. People of faith, people of goodwill have always welcomed refugees. That in fact what we see as a politicization of this issue, in pitting refugees against the U.S. for political gain. And what we are here to do is to demonstrate public support for refugees and refugee resettlement, to uplift the stories of refugees, and to share the reality of their lives here in the United States and how they contribute, and to return our America to its tradition, the one that is inscribed in the Statue of Liberty.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Stephanie. I thank you so much for joining us today. And we’re going to continue to cover this with certain intensity as the crisis of the way in which this nation is treating the refugees and asylum seekers is becoming more and more dire every day. Thank you for joining us.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).