The Wrong Direction on Refugees

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With the worldwide refugee population estimated at 25.4 million, the Trump administration last week announced its refugee admission ceiling for fiscal 2019 will be the lowest in the nearly 40-year history of the U.S. refugee program. The cap of 30,000 refugee admissions — a 33 percent drop from the 45,000 ceiling in 2018, and a decrease from the 110,000 set during the last year of the Obama administration — reflects a rejection of America’s historic leadership in the area of refugee resettlement, and an unprecedented callousness toward those who have experienced the worst in a dangerous and deadly world.

We are a nation of immigrants. And our Jewish community has experienced both the benefits of our nation’s historic open door policy, as well as the consequences of wholesale restrictions on immigration.

So we reject the simplistic notion that newcomers represent a zero-sum loss for those born in the United States. That misguided appeal to jingoistic tendencies is simply not true. Indeed, studies have shown that refugee populations contribute significantly to the national economy, and there are parts of the country that rely heavily on immigrant labor.

Critics of the refugee reduction claim that the decision will have a negative ripple effect, since other countries will follow our lead. The logic of that argument is sound and upsetting. It posits that if a world leader like the United States does less to alleviate the refugee crisis, other governments will be excused from doing more. While a contrary argument can be made — one that relies upon the good will, good sense and compassion of other countries — it is not clear that the refugee issue is a primary concern of anyone right now.

What’s interesting is how the 30,000 cap was reached. According to reports, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley and others argued to keep the cap at 45,000. But anti-immigrant officials with the administration urged an even lower cap of 20,000. The administration’s 30,000 number is, therefore, deemed to be the “elegant compromise.”

Perhaps that represents what passes for realpolitik in this administration. But it is a compromise of crumbs. Instead, we favor raising the ceiling, which is what HIAS and organizations representing a cross-section of the Jewish community — from Agudath Israel of America to Women of Reform Judaism — called for in a letter to President Trump last month.

A simple raising of the immigration ceiling is not enough, however. We also need to improve our country’s capacity to welcome and integrate refugees. Properly administered, helped and developed, the refugee community has the potential of adding exponentially to U.S. productivity and success, as our own earlier generations have shown.

We urge the administration to rethink its refugee fears and to work toward developing a comprehensive, fair and productive policy that welcomes the tired, the hungry, the poor and the downtrodden to our nation’s shores.

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