New England Readies For Trump’s Refugee Plans

Nov 23, 2016

Donald Trump campaigns in New Hampshire during the state's first-in-the-nation primary
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t elaborated much on immigration policy, beyond what he laid out during the campaign.  But enough has been said that many believe he will limit the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.

Before the election, at numerous campaign events, then candidate Donald Trump made it clear he would not be putting out the welcome mat for refugees from Syria, who now number in the millions.

Note: This story was reported as part of the New England News Collaborative.

“We have no idea who these people are, where they come from,” Trump said at an event in September. “I always say – Trojan Horse! Watch what’s going to happen folks, it’s not going to be pretty! “

Trump’s Trojan Horse includes Muslim refugees from mostly Middle East countries where ISIS and other terrorist groups operate.  

About half of the 85-thousand refugees who came to the U.S. last year are Muslim, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. State Department. Many are living around New England, and a few hundred came through IRIS — Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, in New Haven, Connecticut. IRIS Director Chris George says in the coming year his agency expects to resettle about 500 people. Or at least that’s their hope.

“That’s partly based on an assumption that 110-thousand  will come to the United States,” George said. “That was the number the White House and State Department gave us.”

But anything can happen after January 20th, George mused, when Donald Trump becomes president.

The refugee “ceiling” — the upper most number of displaced people allowed in to the U.S. — is set by the president, based on among other things, world events.  Federal funds are allocated to a few hundred agencies, like IRIS. Presidents have the power to stop the U.S. refugee program on a dime, like President Bush did after 9/11.  

What will Trump do?

“That’s a question all of us are asking,” George said, and then sighed.

“A president can exercise the highest level of authority, when it comes to border control or foreign policy,” says Sudha Setty from Western New England University Law. “So in terms of setting that refugee ceiling for future fiscal years, future President Trump does have the authority to set that ceiling very low.”

Setty said Trump’s freedom to exercise sweeping decisions, like banning Muslims from entering the U.S. continues a disturbing trend of the last two administrations.

“The lesson of the last 15 years has been that we have given the president a tremendous amount of power. And we have not put into place a lot of accountability measures when it comes to anything that is  deemed to be national security or terrorism or national security related, and that’s not changing any time soon.”

Trump has called for a more rigorous system to vet refugees. Kathleen Newman from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says it’s a rather rigorous process as stands. Once people are recommended by the UN or an embassy to come to the U.S., multiple screening levels ensue. 

“The State Department, both bio-metric and biographical information,” Newman started to  list.  “They go through the FBI, the CIA, the National Counter-terrorism Center Databases, and Department of Homeland Security,” Newman said. And, she added, “there’s an extra layer for the Syrians to make sure nothing has been missed.”

It can take up to two years, or longer, and since 9/11 a number of applicants have been rejected because of their ties, direct or indirect, to terrorist groups.    

Amherst College Political Scientist Ruxandra Paul is watching both sides of the Atlantic right now. She says if U.S. leadership changes direction on its decades long commitment to refugee resettlement, more global uncertainty is sure to come. 

“Donald Trump has been suggesting that the US has contributed too much and that allies from western Europe are not covering their share of the burden.”

Last year the U.S. gave the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) more than $1.5 billion. The European Union next in line,  followed by several European countries, gave in the hundreds of millions.    

From a legal perspective President Donald Trump will be on solid ground if he chooses to lower the refugee ceiling.  If he does, Paul says, it’s possible other countries will do likewise.