President Trump’s latest assault on immigration, cutting the number of refugees accepted to a mere 18,000 from 30,000 last year, is better than the complete ban that some of his aides were seeking. But looking at mere numbers misses the point.
This is the administration’s latest message to anyone dreaming of a freer life in America: that they should just stay away. The Trump administration has systematically acted to bar as many refugees and asylum seekers as possible, virtually from its first day, supplanting America’s traditional welcome to the world’s desperate people with a spirit of xenophobia and bigotry.
Led by Stephen Miller, a zealot who has planted lieutenants throughout the government, the Trump White House has made its anti-immigration campaign something akin to a crusade, with “the wall” along the Mexican border as its symbol.
The administration has tried to scare away Central Americans by separating children from their parents when families arrive at the border seeking asylum; it threatened to end “temporary protected status” for people escaping natural and other disasters in a number of countries, including Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan; it suspended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which let undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children stay and work; it has dramatically deported immigrants without regard for their ties to family and community; and it has enacted a system that would prevent migrants from seeking asylum if they passed through another country without first seeking asylum there.
Any question about the mind-set guiding the administration should have been put to rest by President Trump’s icy explanation to reporters earlier this month for why he was barring residents of the hurricane-battered Bahamas from taking refuge in the United States.
“I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers,” he said. He offered not a shred of proof of any such danger, while the shattering evidence of Bahamians’ needs still lies everywhere.
The limit announced by the State Department on Thursday is far below the 110,000 refugees a year that President Barack Obama said in 2016 should be let in. Most of the 18,000 slots, moreover, are already filled by Iraqis who worked with the American military, victims of religious persecution and some Central Americans. That would leave only 7,500 slots for families seeking unification, like parents of Rohingya children who have already been admitted.
The proffered reason for the cut was the huge backlog in immigration courts as the number of people seeking asylum is expected to reach 350,000. Most refugees trying to enter the United States, though, have already been cleared. So it’s not immediately clear how lowering the annual limit will help ease the backlog.
There are enormous backlogs, and the United States cannot let in everyone who wants to come. But the severity of the cutbacks makes clear that the administration’s rationale hides its real motive: to score political points with a base of voters fearful of immigration by seeming to keep out as many people as possible.
This shortsighted politicking denies a fundamental virtue — and key advantage — of America’s democracy: that it is a land of immigrants and refugees. It ignores the contributions of immigrants to the greatness of the United States.
There is no sensible argument for opening the borders to everyone. Any refugee or asylum program needs a solid vetting process. But Mr. Trump’s approach is not the answer. Congress should have stepped in long ago with serious immigration reform. But that failure is no reason for Americans to be taken in by Mr. Trump’s fear-mongering and evasive explanations.