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Can President-Elect Donald Trump Ban Refugees from Syria to the US?

Refugee admissions came to a halt once before after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001

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Supporters place a sign welcoming Syrian refugees is placed at the entrance to the office of the Arizona governor during a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, Nov. 17, 2015. VOA

Nov 18, 2016: As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump expressed interest in turning away refugees, specifically those from Syria. He said he would ban Muslim immigrants in general (a talking point that remains on his campaign website). And in November, he advocated limiting immigration from “terror-prone regions.”

But could President Trump immediately stop refugees from coming to the U.S.?

The short answer – yes.

“Day 1 he can change things,” says Jeremy Mayer, associate professor of politics at George Mason University.

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With about nine weeks to go before the 45th president is sworn into office, his plan regarding refugees remains unclear. But it is within the purview of the U.S. president to decide which groups of refugees – who by definition are fleeing persecution in their home countries – will make the cut. And he won’t need Congressional support.

“He can’t remove [the Refugee Act of 1980] from the books, but he can certainly reduce the numbers and reduce the numbers from certain regions,” says Kevin Appleby, senior director of International Migration Policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.

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Could that mean no refugees would be allowed in after the inauguration on Jan. 20?

“Technically, yeah,” says Appleby. “He has a lot of power in terms of who comes in and the number of people who come in.”

About 14,500 Syrians were approved for resettlement and have moved to the U.S. since last October. The U.N. Human rights agency, UNHCR, estimates nearly 1.2 million refugees are in need of permanent resettlement because they cannot return to their home countries, with Syrians accounting for 40 percent of that worldwide total.

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Where rhetoric meets policy

The U.S. has a decades-long history of resettling refugees. Without support from Congress, a president cannot change the law at the heart of the refugee program.

But according to that law, the president has broad, unilateral power over how many refugees are admitted, and where they come from. Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the president establishes how many refugees will be allowed into the U.S.

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President Barack Obama raised that figure – the so-called admissions ceiling – from 70,000 to 85,000 in Fiscal Year 2016, largely to accommodate an increase in Syrian refugees. The number of those fleeing civil war and Islamic State militants in the country has continued to multiply. The Obama administration raised the ceiling to 110,000 for the current fiscal year, which extends through September 2017.

Trump could use his executive powers to maintain that level, reduce it, pause the program, or restrict refugees from certain countries. Experts say he could also create a work-around to effectively ban Muslims, for example, by ordering that only certain persecuted groups – say, Christians in Syria or Iraq – be considered for admission, while omitting Muslims from that protected category, though they may have fled the same dangers.

Long pro-refugee tradition

Experts and researchers on refugee policy maintain the U.S. program is respected internationally. The country permanently resettles more refugees through the UNHCR system than any other.

“If the U.S. pulls back, it would be a humanitarian disaster. Other nations won’t necessarily step up to fill the breach,” says Appleby.

“What we know is that throughout the history of the U.S., refugees and immigrants have been welcomed by presidents of both parties, during war and peace,” says Stacie Blake, spokesperson for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “During this global refugee crisis of unprecedented proportion, it is no time to shrink from this leadership.”

Trump said on the campaign trail that the refugee vetting process is nonexistent, an allegation that the current government and non-profit organizations working with refugees have repeatedly disputed.

“I share the questions as to how the rhetoric [from Trump] will be interpreted in the realm of policy and practice. We don’t know,” says Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College.

Egmont sees a campaign cycle in which conservative candidates seized on discussions about Islamic State and other acts of violence, and “perhaps misassociated it with refugees, and fed a confusion in the popular mind.”

Refugee admissions came to a halt once before after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But within two years, under new procedures, arrivals began again and hovered around 60,000 to 70,000 throughout much of the last decade.

Despite political backlash against refugees last year, Egmont remains optimistic about the future of the program.

“Most people just do not have opportunity to know refugees personally enough, to know the years they’ve suffered in miserable living environments,” he added. “I believe the long arc of history is just, and the United States will continue to both welcome newcomers and to right any wrong that might be taken in any short term initiative.”

From Oct. 1 until Nov. 16, 14,568 refugees have arrived in the U.S., according to State Department data. Democratic Republic of Congo is the top country of origin, with nearly 3,500 individuals, followed by Somalia, Syria and Iraq, each of which had roughly 2,000 refugees admitted to the U.S.

Only in 2015 did the U.S. significantly answer the appeal by UNHCR to increase Syrian refugee admissions, focusing additional personnel on Jordan to process more applications.

The Obama administration says there will be no similar last-minute effort to increase refugee arrivals to the U.S. ahead of possible cuts to the program.

“We have no plans to accelerate the refugee admissions process,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email this week. (VOA)

 

Next Story

White House in Support of Trump’s National Emergency Declaration

Trump said he declared the national emergency because he was unhappy with the amount of money Congress authorized.

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President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Feb. 15, 2019. VOA

The White House is defending President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border as multiple states prepare to file legal challenges and Democrats in Congress plan to vote their disapproval.

“He could choose to ignore this crisis, but he chose not to,” Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner, told Fox News Sunday.

Miller assailed former Republican President George W. Bush for what he called an “astonishing betrayal” of the U.S. nearly two decades ago when four times as many immigrants were illegally entering the United States as now. But Miller said the “bottom line” is that “you cannot conceive of a strong nation without a secure border.”

He said Trump’s action is “defending our own borders.” He illegal immigration “is a threat in our country.”

Miller said Trump’s actions were justified under a 1976 law giving presidents authority to declare national emergencies, although none of the 59 declared since then has involved instances when a president has attempted to override congressional refusal to approve funding for a specific proposal.

Trump declared the national emergency on Friday to circumvent Congress, which had refused his request for $5.7 billion in wall funding, even as it approved $1.375 billion for barriers along about 90 kilometers of the 3,200-kilometer border. Trump plans to tap more than $8 billion in government funds authorized for other projects the build the wall, although lawsuits challenging the action are already being filed to block his transfer of money.

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Border Patrol agent Vincent Pirro looks on near a border wall that separates the cities of Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Feb. 5, 2019, in San Diego. VOA

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told ABC’s This Week that his state and others would “definitely and imminently” file a legal challenge, arguing that people all over the United States would be harmed by Trump’s move because the diverted money would not be spent on needed services.

“Typically our presidents have focused on issues where the national interests are clearly at stake,” Becerra said about previous national emergency declarations. “The national interests are not at stake here. We have the lowest level of entries into the country by those who don’t have permission than we’ve had in some 20 years.”

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he thinks he has “a lot of discretion” in deciding which funds previously allocated for defense needs can instead be used to build a border wall. “You can trust the numbers in terms of the potential. Then you gotta marry it up with where the money would be spent.” But he said money designated for military housing would not be spent on the wall.

Trump said he declared the national emergency because he was unhappy with the amount of money Congress authorized.

“I want to do it faster,” he said. “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”

Trump’s staunchest critics, including Democrats who have announced they are running against him next year and other lawmakers, have attacked his national emergency declaration as an end-run around the constitutional provision that U.S. funding authorization lies with Congress and noted that he said that he did not need to take action.

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Trump declared the national emergency on Friday to circumvent Congress, which had refused his request for $5.7 billion in wall funding. VOA

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN, “If we give away, if we surrender the power of the purse… there will be little check and no balance left. It’ll not be a separation of powers anymore, just a separation of parties.”

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Journalist Bob Woodward, who chronicled the first year of the Trump presidency in a best-selling book called “Fear,” told Fox News he believes Trump made the national emergency declaration because “he looks strong. He looks tough to lots of people.”

Trump centered much of his successful 2016 campaign for the White House on a vow to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it. He long since abandoned direct payment from Mexico, when its leaders rejected the idea, and instead sought congressional approval of the U.S. taxpayer funding. (VOA)