Georgetown University Press

For decades, American presidents and congressional leaders of both parties supported aid for the world's refugees. In response to record-setting levels of displacement around the world, President Barack Obama supported increases in refugee aid and resettlement of more refugees in America. President Donald Trump, however, has approved a completely different set of policies that seeks to cut the number of refugees and immigrants coming to the US.

By reversing Obama administration plans to expand refugee resettlement and limiting the right to asylum, the new administration has ignored years of tradition and US responsibilities under the international refugee convention. It has also adopted policies to shrink aid to refugees abroad and refused to sign on to new international agreements. In doing so, the Trump administration has vilified foreign-born people, set a poor example for other governments, and ceded humanitarian leadership to others.

US Traditions

America's history of being open to refugees and immigrants has gone hand in hand with repeated bouts of prejudice against the next wave of newcomers. Following World War II, Americans and Europeans acknowledged they had been wrong to turn away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.1 America took steps to allow survivors of fascism to enter the US, signed the 1967 Protocol to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and following the Vietnam War, built the modern US refugee admissions program.2 Throughout the Cold War era, politicians from both sides of the political aisle s bupported refugees fleeing communism. President Ronald Reagan even devoted a paragraph of his farewell address to describing how US sailors had rescued Indochinese in boats at sea, and the refugee program continued mostly uninterrupted until recent policy changes.3

The US also has provided—over many years, with bipartisan support in Congress—the financial backbone of the international humanitarian system, serving as the top funder of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Children's Fund, the World Food Program, and until the Trump administration, the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.4 With the exception of the Swiss-run [End Page 42] ICRC, an American traditionally ran or was the deputy at all of these organizations.

The Obama Administration

The Obama administration, and the foreign policy and national security community at the time, continued in that tradition and supported refugee programs. But support for resettlement of refugees to America came into question when, in 2011, the FBI arrested two Iraqi plotters in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on terrorism charges; they had entered the US as refugees in 2009. In August 2012, the two pled guilty to preparing to send weapons and money from the US to al-Qaeda in Iraq.5 The FBI also had proof—fingerprints on a detonator found in Iraq—that one had earlier targeted US troops. Critics of the refugee program seized on this episode as proof that the admission of refugees to the US was dangerous.

Leaders in the administration responded by temporarily suspending the flow of refugees from Baghdad and undertaking a thorough review of Iraqi refugees already in the US as well as the vetting process itself. White House officials convened frequent meetings with law enforcement, intelligence, and national security agencies to ensure that all the pieces in the process fit together and that the Department of Homeland Security ran the names and biometric data of refugee applicants through all relevant national security databases before accepting any refugee for resettlement. Concerns that two potential terrorists had entered America slowed, but did not end, the refugee admissions program.

At the same time that leaders grappled with how to strike the right balance between generous refugee admissions and American security, crises involving conflict, political instability, and poverty put stress on refugee programs. Leaders of the State Department's refugee bureau did their best to coordinate appropriate humanitarian responses with counterparts at the US Agency for International Development and representatives of other governments and UN humanitarian agencies. Syria was a top priority, with savage attacks against civilians producing millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Within the UN Security Council, the US and other Western governments sought to condemn the Assad regime but faced opposition from Russia, which, along with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah Party, supported Assad's military efforts against his own people. Administration foreign policy leaders and Middle East experts devoted thousands of hours in pursuit of peace, but leaders began to put more pressure on humanitarian efforts to succeed as peace proved elusive. At times, humanitarian efforts were the only topic on which the US had much positive to say.

Meanwhile, other crises continued to erupt across the globe. ISIS forced Iraqis to flee for their lives as the militant group captured large areas of northern and western Iraq in 2014 and seemed destined for Baghdad. In December 2013, South Sudan again fell into war and its people ran to neighboring countries. In January 2015, I traveled to Northern Rakhine state in Myanmar and then to Dhaka and Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh to raise concerns about the heavily persecuted Rohingya. In the Horn of Africa, Kenya hosted what was at that time the world's largest refugee camp and threatened to send thousands home to Somalia. In 2015, a civil war in Yemen exacerbated by Saudi Arabian support for the unstable government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi created a humanitarian crisis as ports were bombed and blockaded in a country dependent on food imports.

In addition to addressing these crises, I also tried to bring attention to neglected areas. [End Page 43] I traveled to a remote region of Burkina Faso in 2012 to meet refugees from Mali with then–High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and later accompanied the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Christos Stylianides and UN humanitarian Toby Lanzer to countries in Africa sheltering Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram. I celebrated rare victories—from prospects for peace and programs to help the displaced in Colombia to much smaller successes in building permanent homes for refugees displaced years before in the Balkans.

While these crises were certainly demanding—and the president and his top officials wrestled with policy options for Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan among other urgent priorities—there were generally no serious divisions on humanitarian policy within the administration during President Obama's second term. Cabinet officers and their deputies would append humanitarian messages to their talking points when meeting with foreign counterparts on subjects ranging from peace negotiations to trade. Moreover, the response to the Bowling Green arrests meant many of the nation's top counterterrorism officials were now finding ways to safely bring more refugees to the US, and National Security Council (NSC) staff at the White House coordinated across the lengthening list of agencies involved in refugee issues and sought to remove bureaucratic obstacles to good policy. Obama himself could be depended on as the administration's most eloquent spokesman on refugee policies. After the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, he said, "We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves. That's what they're fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both."6

Initial Progress

NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power and Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) Eric Schwartz led early policy changes in the Obama administration. Power set about to strengthen US support for multilateral organizations and address the refugee crisis in Iraq, traveling to the region in fall 2009 and pushing a three-pronged strategy of refugee aid, resettlement, and return.7 At the State Department, Schwartz updated the US refugee resettlement program and put it on a sounder financial footing so that it could better weather changes like those spawned by the economic downturn in 2008 and increases in the cost of housing. In addition to helping develop humanitarian policy and allocating refugee aid, the PRM bureau also conducts diplomacy on broader international migration issues. When I took over from Schwartz as assistant secretary in 2012, the first of these diplomatic exchanges on migration was a joint appearance at the UN with the permanent representative of Mexico to the UN, Luis Alfonso de Alba. Attendees packed the room, transfixed by the US and Mexico discussing these topics together amicably.

US support for greater UN involvement in migration issues came at a time of similar global appetite. The joint appearance, [End Page 44] for instance, was part of the run-up to the Secretary General's High-Level Dialogue on Migration in October 2013, only the second time the UN had hosted such a gathering. With then-IOM head Bill Swing and UN leaders, we maneuvered to add the IOM—an independent agency since its creation in 1951—to the UN family of agencies. It was designated a UN "related agency" in Summer 2016. Alongside other governments and NGOs, we developed and promoted voluntary guidelines to help migrants who were caught in crisis zones.8 For three years in a row, the bureau team in charge of the refugee admissions program and its partners in and out of the US Government succeeded in bringing nearly 70,000 refugees to the United States, prompting White House officials to encourage planning for a sizable increase in refugee admissions. Many of these successes went unnoticed by the US media but were nevertheless important and timely contributions.

The World Wakes Up to Refugees

In the summer of 2015, images of refugees traveling by leaky rafts across the Mediterranean and by foot through Europe captured the world's attention. On September 3, the photo of a small toddler washed up on the beach in Turkey went viral and sparked new demands that the Obama administration do more to help Syrian refugees. At the same time, conservatives cautioned against bringing more Muslim refugees to the US—some feared they would import violence and terrorism, and a much smaller number voiced fear of the spread of Islam.

The Paris attacks of November 13, which were initially—and erroneously—thought to have been carried out by refugees, amplified these concerns. Every member of Congress wanted to know: were terrorist refugees headed to the US? The bureaucracy was doing everything humanly possible to screen refugees, but even those members of Congress who supported refugee aid demanded air-tight guarantees that the resettlement program could keep terrorists out. That the odds were against a terrorist exploiting the program to carry out a large-scale attack (the libertarian Cato Institute would later estimate the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee as 1 in 3.64 billion) was not seen as a sufficient reason to continue the program when any single successful attack could kill large numbers.9 The complexity of the vetting process—multiple agencies, classified details, myriad acronyms, frequent changes to procedures—only made it more difficult to brief legislators on the security safeguards of the program.

Two New York Summits in September 2016

In response to all of these events, the UN decided to hold a major meeting in New York on refugees and migrants on September 19, 2016. Secretary of State Kerry spoke on behalf of the US.10 The UN-organized meeting produced the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, which in turn launched two processes to develop a Global Compact (or voluntary agreement) on Refugees and a second Global Compact for Migration.

The White House took a different tack. President Obama spearheaded a second meeting a day later that was modeled on a peacekeeping summit the year before. Attendance was restricted to those world leaders willing to make specific commitments to do more by increasing humanitarian contributions, resettling more refugees, or for countries hosting large numbers of refugees, allowing refugee children to go to school and adults to work. [End Page 45]

Altogether, representatives from 49 countries attended the "Leaders' Summit" in addition to UN and World Bank leaders. The World Bank used the opportunity to announce its Global Crisis Response Platform, a new grant and loan financing mechanism for low- and middle-income countries hosting refugees. UNHCR and IOM announced a joint mechanism to help countries start or expand refugee resettlement programs. President Obama also addressed a group of business leaders in a side meeting to encourage more aid to refugees from the private sector—something that then and now remains a work in progress.

The international community—particularly Europeans who wanted more US leadership—deemed the summit a success in nearly every aspect, save one: would there be follow up? Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, it is likely her administration would have championed diplomatic follow-through on commitments made. But while the UNHCR and the World Bank have used the commitments as a basis for continued dialogue, absent a top-level push from the Trump White House, no single country has chosen to reconvene the participants for a second Leaders' Summit.11

The Trump Administration

Trump made immigration a top issue of his campaign, starting with his June 2015 announcement that he was running for president. At Trump Tower, he vowed to "build a wall" and accused Mexico of sending north drug smugglers, criminals, and rapists. Not only was this a horrible insult against Mexicans, it also was inaccurate regarding border flows; the number of Mexican workers coming north has decreased significantly in recent years. Undocumented border crossers are now largely children and families fleeing crime, violence, and insecurity in Central America.

Once Trump came into office, the first change to American refugee policy was delivered via Executive Order straight from the White House. Trump launched the travel ban just seven days into the new administration, stopping refugee travelers in their tracks with zero warning. The ban was not only an irresponsible management move, but also cruel to those who had waited for years and sold many of their possessions in order to make the trip.

Career officials at the State Department were ready for a transition to a new administration, but the Trump team was slow to come together at State and prepared very little before the inauguration in January. There was no organized handoff to a new set of decision-makers. This was unusual for any administration, Democratic or Republican.12 The new administration eliminated the office of the deputy secretary for management and resources and did not immediately fill key jobs and ambassadorships, including assistant secretary for PRM and under secretary for civilian security.13 Without a new assistant secretary, the PRM bureau instead received guidance issued from the White House, such as the surprise travel ban. The Trump administration went on to propose deep budget cuts for State and USAID, cuts that, fortunately, have been over-turned by Congress. But the threat of cuts and the administration's overall stance have driven some of the most seasoned diplomats into retirement. PRM staff have repeatedly argued against proposals to eliminate the bureau, which has been a major distraction and sapped morale. The President's Budget for FY 2020 includes yet another proposal to strip the bureau of most of its resources and authority; Congress is not expected to approve it.14 [End Page 46]

The White House has also adopted a number of poorly planned and ill-advised asylum policies. The April 2018 "zero tolerance" policy separated children from their parents at the border, detaining parents and sending children to shelters across the US. The president ended the policy in June after national condemnation, but inquiries into the origins and impact of the policy have continued into 2019.15 In June 2018, then–attorney general Jeff Sessions directed judges to no longer grant asylum to survivors of domestic violence or to people fleeing criminal gangs, arguing they are not refugees under the legal definition. In December 2018, a federal judge ruled that the administration could not impose this ban; it now remains up to immigration judges to decide on individual cases.

Other domestic policies have undone decades of progress on support for refugees. The White House has slashed the number of refugees being resettled in the US from nearly 85,000 arrivals in the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration to 22,491 in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2018.16 The drastic decrease has meant that the nine nonprofits that resettle refugees in cities and towns across the US receive fewer refugees and less funding for their work, and thus have been forced to close offices. The highly successful public-private partnership that has been built up over years—including relationships with landlords, employers, synagogues, churches, and schools—is degrading. The State Department has threatened to end its relationship with some of these groups but has yet to carry out that threat. The Trump administration also ended an Obama-era program that reduced the number of children making the dangerous trip north from Central America by unifying children with parents who are lawfully present in the US. The administration also sought to end temporary protective status for people who came to the US years ago but have been unable to return home because the crisis or conditions that originally prevented them from returning home have not improved.

The new administration has rolled back American international leadership on refugee issues. In speeches to the UN General Assembly in September 2017 and 2018, President Trump claimed credit for the billions in humanitarian aid provided by the US and argued for keeping refugees closer to their home countries. Trump has stopped funding the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which provides education and health care to 5 million Palestinian refugees, as well as the UN Population Fund, which, among other priorities, improves survival rates for mothers and babies in crisis zones. After journalists reported a series of anti-Muslim tweets from the American nominee to lead the IOM, the nominee lost his election and America lost that leadership post.17 Early on, the Trump administration walked away from negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration and encouraged other countries to do the same; they claimed the voluntary compact, which is not legally binding, would infringe on US sovereignty. American diplomats were involved in the formulation of the Refugee Compact, but the administration came out against it at the eleventh hour. The US was one of two countries, alongside Hungary, that voted against the Global Compact on Refugees in mid-December 2018, and one of only a handful that came out against a UN General assembly resolution endorsing the Migration Compact.

Unfortunately, crises overseas worsened while the president focused on the southern border. The Myanmar government's cruel and disproportionate backlash to attacks [End Page 47] in Rakhine State in August 2017 led 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh. Until the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Saudi Arabia's role in that crisis went largely ignored. Also in 2018, an average of 5,500 people fled turmoil and hyperinflation in Venezuela every day. When combined with those who had fled earlier, this added up to 3 million Venezuelan refugees in Latin American countries and the Caribbean by early 2019. UNHCR predicted that as many as 5 million would be refugees by the end of the year, and Venezuelans are now part of the mixed flow of refugees and migrants at the US border with Mexico.18 The Maduro government only recently ended a long-lasting blockade of aid into the country that had worsened the situation.19

Historic Levels of Displacement

The US administration has turned its back on the world's refugees at a time of historic levels of displacement. According to UN-HCR, 25 million people around the world are refugees and another 40 million are displaced within their own home countries.

The Obama administration and allies rallied the world to do more, but now the US and others are moving in a different direction entirely. In addition to the about-face toward refugees in the White House, a number of countries in Eastern Europe are now led by anti-migrant politicians, and populism and nationalism are on the rise throughout Europe. While Germany marshaled its resources to deal with the influx of migrants and refugees in the summer of 2015, the EU was initially unable to come together to address the situation, was slow to institute proper screening programs, and could not mount a workable relocation scheme. Instead, walls sprang up along the "Balkan route" and stopped the flow of migrants through Greece. Subsequently Brussels focused on paying off Turkey and other countries of transit, and European donors are, belatedly, investing more aid in countries of origin for both refugees and migrants, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Such investment is smart but may not stop people with courage and ambition from migrating.

Hostility to refugees and asylum seekers is now a global phenomenon. With the notable exception of Canada, countries are turning their backs on refugees. What are the global prospects for the "Right to Asylum"?

People fleeing for their lives from violence in Central America or the war in Syria do not receive sympathy from some segments of developed countries; they are instead described as dangerous gang members, criminals, and terrorists. They are, in fact, more likely the victims of criminal gangs or terrorists, with some also fleeing domestic violence, bad governance, and poverty. Leaders in positions of responsibility used to calm unreasonable fears and provide needed perspective to concerned citizens. Now senior government leaders lead fear-mongering by vilifying some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

Once again, America is setting the tone for other countries. Instead of offers of collaboration and responsibility sharing, such as those from the Obama administration, President Trump calls for erecting walls and preventing asylum seekers from crossing borders.

It is ironic that the US, formerly the [End Page 48] world's humanitarian leader, is missing from current international efforts like the two global compacts that find new and creative ways to help refugees and other displaced people. The 2020 election provides an opportunity to inject consideration of more constructive approaches into American politics. Fear-mongering and blame-shifting should give way to toefforts to foster peace and rescue people in jeopardy. The best outcomes will be those that combine diplomacy, development, and humanitarianism to keep people from needing to flee their homes in the first place. [End Page 49]

Anne C. Richard

Anne C. Richard Served as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, refugees and migration in the Obama Administration (2012–17). In addition to the State Department, she has Served at Peace Corps Headquarters and the US Office of Management and Budget. She has enjoyed fellowships from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Professor Richard is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and has a master's degree in Public Policy Studies from the University Of Chicago. Since Leaving office in January 2017, she has taught at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service as an affiliate of the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) and was a centennial fellow in fall 2018. She has also been a Visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House.


1. In addition to the World War II–era example of the US government refusing to allow the Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis to disembark, US history is rife with other examples of Americans whose families arrived earlier trying to keep out new arrivals.

2. "American Courts and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: A Need for Harmony in the Face of a Refugee Crisis," Harvard Law Review 131 (March 2018): 1399–420,

3. Ronald Reagan, "Farewell Address to the Nation," National Archives and Records Administration, January 11, 1989,; Refugee resettlement faced a temporary pause during the Bush administration after 9/11.

4. The top donor has been claimed by (1) the US as it is the top single-country donor in absolute dollar terms, (2) the European Union because the total of all giving in Europe, through national government budgets and the EU's own funds, surpasses that of the US, and (3) Scandinavian countries (Sweden currently holds this distinction) that contribute the largest percentage of their gross national product to humanitarian aid.

5. A. J. Willingham, "Here's What Actually Happened in Bowling Green," CNN, February 3, 2017,; Carol Cratty, "Iraqi Men Living in Kentucky Go to Prison for Plot to Help al Qaeda," CNN, January 30, 2013,; and James Gordon Meek, Cindy Galli and Brian Ross, "'Dozens' of Terrorists May Be in US as Refugees," ABC News, November 20, 2013,

6. Elise Foley, "Obama Says He's Still Committed to Accepting Syrian Refugees," Huffington Post, November 16, 2015,

7. Stewart M. Patrick, "Obama at the UN: The Burden of the Anti-Bush," Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief, September 18, 2009,; Elizabeth Ferris, Samantha Power, and Abdel Khaliq Mohammad Rasheed Zangana, "The Future of Iraqi Refugees and Displaced Persons," Brookings Doha Center, November 18, 2009,

8. "Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster," Migrants in Countries in Crisis, June 2016,

9. Alex Nowrasteh, "Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis," Policy Analysis No. 798, Cato Institute, September 13, 2016.

10. John Kerry, "Remarks at the UN High-Level Plenary Meeting on Refugees and Migration," US Department of State, September 19, 2016,

11. The Global Compact on Refugees calls for a Global Refugee Forum to be held every four years to make and assess pledges. The first is to take place in fall 2019. If successful, this meeting could be viewed as the successor to the 2016 Leaders' Summit, although it is not clear whether and to what extent the US will participate. See Alice Thomas and Mark Yarnell, "Ensuring That the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration Deliver," Refugees International, November 2018,

12. I met only once with two or three people representing the new administration, but these individuals did not stay long at the department and were not involved in briefing the incoming secretary, Rex Tillerson.

13. On May 24, 2018, the White House nominated Ronald Mortensen to be assistant secretary for PRM. He has a background in the logistics of disaster response overseas but is not an expert on refugees or migrants and has written essays that are anti-immigrant, accusing the Dreamers—undocumented youth who came to the US as children—of felonies. As of this writing, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not acted on his nomination.

14. Rachel Oswald, "Lawmakers from Both Parties Resist Humanitarian and Refugee Aid Changes," Roll Call, March 22, 2019,

15. Ron Nixon, "'Zero Tolerance' Immigration Policy Surprised Agencies, Report Finds," The New York Times, October 24, 2018.

16. Victoria Macchi, "Trump Administration Misses Refugee Admissions Deadline," Voice of America, October 1, 2018,

17. Aaron C. Davis and Jack Gillum, "Trump Nominee for UN Migration Post Called Muslims Violent, Christians Top Priority," Washington Post, February 3, 2018.

18. "Emergency Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela Launched," UNHCR, December 14, 2018,; "Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela," Response for Venezuelans, 2018,

19. Anatoly Kurmanaev and Ana Vanessa Herrero, "After Years of Denial, Venezuela's President Allows Aid to Enter," New York Times, April 16, 2019,

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