Trump’s Attacks on Refugees Expose the Inadequacy of the Current SystemRoundup
tags: immigration, refugees, Donald Trump
Carl J. Bon Tempo is associate professor of history at the University at Albany, SUNY and the author of Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War.
Last week the Trump administration announced its plans for refugee admissions for fiscal 2021, setting a ceiling for admissions at 15,000. This was by far the lowest total in U.S. history, though it fell comfortably in line with the administration’s prior ceilings in 2020 (18,000) and 2019 (30,000).
Human rights and refugee advocates have responded with great alarm — and understandably so. According to the United Nations, the global population of forcibly displaced individuals reached a record 79.5 million in 2019. The Trump administration, however, appears more hostile than ever to refugee admissions. Indeed, the president spent recent days warning Americans “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp … overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools and inundating hospitals” while his campaign ran Facebook advertisements that baselessly linked refugees to the spread of covid-19.
In setting annual refugee admissions, the Trump administration is administering a 40-year-old law: the Refugee Act of 1980. Since its inception, that law has been a vital, lifesaving avenue for refugees to enter the United States. But it also was the product of a particular set of historical circumstances. In exploring that moment, even as President Trump hastens the demise of this system, a move that will harm many thousands of people, we can see the framework itself may have outlived its usefulness. It has also proved to be totally inadequate to the needs of our present moment.
The U.S. commitment to refugees emerged in the late 1940s. Humanitarian rationales, Cold War foreign policy concerns and pressure from religious and ethnic groups led American leaders to establish admissions programs. These ad hoc responses to what American leaders saw as refugee crises brought hundreds of thousands of European refugees to the United States between 1948 and 1960. Importantly, the public perceived these newcomers as victims of communism and deserving of help. Cuban refugees in the 1960s fit this model, too. Escaping Fidel Castro’s communist regime, they too were mostly of European descent.
With Hungarian and Cuban refugee admissions, presidents utilized novel powers. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the “parole” of the Hungarians into the United States, an obscure part of immigration law that permitted the attorney general to admit to the country an individual deemed vital to national security. President John F. Kennedy followed the same procedure with hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Decisions about refugee admissions came to rest in the executive branch, and especially the White House, rather than with Congress.
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