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  • US Diplomacy on Refugees and MigrantsInside Recent History
  • Anne C. Richard (bio)

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...