Eric Davis: Trump's immigration policy is flawed

President Trump’s words and actions about immigration and refugee policy represent a significant departure from American history, traditions and values.

For example, the White House announced last month that the ceiling on refugees admitted to the United States in 2020 would be set at 18,000 people. Four years ago, in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the ceiling was 85,000. In the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the annual refugee admissions ceiling was over 200,000.

While the United States has reduced the refugee admissions ceiling by more than 90 percent over the last 35 years, the number of people seeking resettlement all over the world is at an all-time high, mostly due to the consequences of wars and internal conflicts in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.

International organizations estimate that more than 70 million people are currently forcibly displaced from their homes. About 40 million of these people are displaced in their country of origin, while about 30 million have crossed international borders and are classified as refugees or asylum seekers. Most of these people fear persecution because of their religion, nationality, race, membership in a social group, or political opinions.

UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, estimates that there were almost 26 million refugees worldwide in 2018. Of this number, more than 1 million are currently in temporary quarters in official or unofficial refugee camps, some of the most notable, and notorious, of which are located in Calais, France, near the Channel Tunnel, on the island of Lesbos in Greece, and in Matamoros, Mexico, on the border with Texas.

Because the United States and other nations have been cutting back on refugee admissions in recent years, UNHCR estimates that only 56,000 of the 26 million refugees were resettled in 2018. In the United States, refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any immigrants seeking admission.

Prospective refugees must be vetted by agencies in four separate government departments — State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security. It is not uncommon for prospective refugees to wait 10 years between leaving their homeland and being approved for resettlement in the United States. Refugees admitted to the United States are also required to repay a loan to cover the costs of their travel to the U.S.

Once a refugee is approved for resettlement in the United States, he or she is assigned to an authorized refugee agency to provide basic services during the first 90 days of residence in the U.S. Six of these agencies are faith-based organizations such as Episcopal Migration Ministries or the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and three of them are secular organizations such as the International Rescue Committee. These organizations provide refugees with housing, food, English classes, job training and other services.

Refugees admitted to the United States are legal immigrants. They are eligible for permanent residency status (a green card) after one year, and may apply for U.S. citizenship after five years.

Some news reports indicated that Trump wanted to set the refugee admissions ceiling at zero for 2020, and had to be persuaded by staff to allow the admission of up to 18,000 refugees. In my opinion, Trump’s opposition to this program is motivated both by his innate racism (most refugees are from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa), and by his misguided perception that “the country is full.”

While some urban areas on the East and West Coasts are very crowded, there is work available in all of those metropolitan areas. Many other parts of the nation that are less-populated would welcome refugees. Indeed, Gov. Scott has said that current federal policies hurt the attempts of Vermont and other states to attract immigrants and refugees to regions of the country where the population has been stagnant or declining.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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