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refugee cap national security foreign policy trump administration

Refugee Cap Will Hurt, Not Help, National Security

Trump has twisted “America First” into “America Alone."

Pictures: Daniel McCullough

Last year the United States admitted 33,000 refugees. Last week, the Trump administration announced a cap of 30,000 refugees for fiscal year 2019. To be clear, that is not a commitment to resettle 30,000 people but rather a refusal to settle any more than that number, ensuring that the “land of the free” will admit the fewest refugees since just after 9/11. To put that in perspective, George Bush, during his first year, admitted 70,000 refugees and Barack Obama, during his last year, admitted almost 85,000, according to Pew Research. Making matters worse, this 30,000 ceiling will occur during one of the worst refugee crises the world has ever seen with the United Nations reporting that worldwide, there are “nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”

The administration claims this reduction reflects not an abandoning of the US commitment to refugees, but rather a renewed commitment to their well-being. In a statement earlier this week, Secretary Pompeo argued that “We can house, feed, and provide medical care for hundreds of thousands more refugees closer to their homes and do so more rapidly than we could possibly do here…the ultimate goal is the best possible care and safety of these people in need.” Secretary Pompeo makes this claim just weeks after the US ended funding to a UN program for Palestinian refugees and months after the White House proposed 20% cuts to State Department international programs.

Supporters of President Trump’s new strategy argue this policy is meant to protect US citizens. But whom, or what, exactly is this strategy trying to protect? Our economic well-being or physical safety? Research from New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization,  shows that of the ten US cities with the highest number of refugees resettled (in proportion to size), nine showed a decline in both violent and property crime. Likewise, the CATO Institute argues that “The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year. The annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist” These studies counter the all too common narrative that refugees are a threat to our security.

While living up to American ideals, in principle, is enough to convince some of the duty of the US to lead the world in refugee admissions, there are practical advantages to it as well.

Without credible evidence to argue against a more robust refugee program, it’s easy to argue that it is simply the moral thing to do — to assist those most in need of refuge. While living up to American ideals, in principle, is enough to convince some of the duty of the US to lead the world in refugee admissions, there are practical advantages to it as well. Living up to our ideals increases our appeal, or soft power, around the world. The international arena is no longer a system solely of state actors messaging and interacting with other state actors. Non-state actors play an increasingly large role in politics and events around the globe. Terrorist groups have the ability to conduct attacks against states and non-state groups. The internet and social media have allowed for the free-flowing exchange of ideas, meaning that the leaders of the Arab Spring in Tunisia can influence political organizers in New York. In this new network, power is diffused among many actors — many of whom are undeterred or convinced by more traditional notions of hard power alone. All areas of US foreign policy must be refreshed with an understanding of this concept of complementary hard and soft, or smart power.

A foreign policy with a focus on admitting as many refugees as we can vet and place sends a message to all actors on the international stage that the government of the United States is committed to living up to the country’s values of freedom and democracy. Note that this message is not an open invitation to bad actors. Rather, it reaffirms our commitment to one of the most stringent vetting processes in the world. Telling those who are seeking freedom and security in this country, “welcome,” while telling those who seek to harm those living in our society, “not a chance.”

Acting as a leader in vetting, hosting, and supporting the integration of refugees into the fabric of American society gives the US power with state actors, as well. It lends us a moral authority and international credibility and allows us to set the agenda in addressing the crises. If we’re not at the table, participating in developing and implementing solutions, we have no power over the outcome. In short, we give up our vote.

In the case of refugees, as in so many other areas of foreign policy, Trump has twisted “America First” into “America Alone,” disregarding years of bipartisan political ideology that alliances make us stronger and more secure. Support for this policy rests precariously on sensationalism, omission of facts, and false analogies of poisonous candies. It does more to threaten our national security than it does to improve it, and frankly, it is downright embarrassing.

Maggie Seymour


Maggie Seymour is an Illinois native with a BA from Loyola University Chicago in Political Science, an MA in Military History from Norwich University, an MA in Journalism from Mizzou University, and a PhD in International Relations from Old Dominion University. Her dissertation focused on the use of hard power and soft power in counterterrorism. She served 10 years as an active duty intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. During that time she deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve. She is an avid ultra runner and writes most of her pieces while logging her miles. She is currently serving in the Marine Corps Reserve and is a Trainor Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


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