Why Trump’s Anti-Refugee Policy Could Backfire

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S1: Let’s pray father, God, creator of heaven and earth. I just pray that you’ll be with us tonight as we conduct this meeting.

S2: When the County Commission in Bismarck, North Dakota, met to vote on immigration last month, they opened the meeting with a prayer for Calmness County.

S1: And we do a song in your son’s name. Amen. Thank you.

S2: They were talking about immigration, because every year this county accepts a couple dozen refugees. North Dakota is actually a bit of a refugee hub, but a new executive order from the Trump administration was forcing them to decide whether they should continue to welcome these people or start to turn them away.

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S3: You know, typically the question of resettling refugees has never really been controversial.

S2: Jonathan Blitzer writes for The New Yorker. He’s been keeping an eye on meetings like this one. They’re happening all over the country, state by state, county by county, because that’s the way the Trump administration wanted it.

S4: And so the logic behind this, of course, was, OK, let’s try to isolate the states and the municipalities who want to resettle refugees so we can sort of expose them and maybe take political shots at them. And so the expectation was Republicans would kind of cleave to the White House line. Democratic states and municipalities would kind of do their own thing at that meeting in Bismarck.

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S2: The room was packed with so many people waiting to speak, they couldn’t meet the fire codes when the commission finally found a way to get public testimony. It took four hours to hear from everyone, all these people weighing in on whether the county should continue to accept refugees.

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S4: That county, that broader metropolitan area such as it is, resettled 24 people over the course of one year. That’s in a population of 95000 residents. So, again, not even a drop in a bucket. Exactly. Exactly. And yet, you know, 95000 resident community is small. And when debated in the abstract, this issue of, you know, what kind of community are we? Are our resources being well spent going toward foreigners who are coming here? It can get very charged very fast.

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S5: I want to say, first of all, thank you for having this meeting.

S2: And while this woman talks, you can see guysand Magots with long beards sitting just behind her. But she makes the case that the local government just doesn’t have the money to provide for more people.

S5: Just remember, your heart can only bleed so long before you can bleed anymore. It’s time we take care of our own first.

S2: Even the mayor showed up to testify against resettlement. But look at Jonathan’s attention is what happened when this idea he’s talking about. About what kind of community are we was put to a vote. Yes.

S6: Motion carries. After hours of testimony, Bismarck, North Dakota, voted to keep the county’s door open for one more year.

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S7: Just how crazy, gentlemen, for your patience and for attending. We are adjourned.

S8: Today on the show, how an executive order intended to curb refugee resettlement and make it a political lightning rod backfired. And how it rallied even Republican officials around this idea that the U.S. welcomes people from around the world. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S2: The first thing you need to know to understand the story of refugee resettlement and how it’s changing is that these local meetings are just one more way. The Trump administration has been squeezing the immigration system, limiting it. So over the last couple of years, I’ll have the numbers of refugees coming into the United States. How has that number changed?

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S4: So the Trump administration came into office with its eyes on the prize when it came to refugee resettlement. They wanted to vastly reduce how many people the U.S. resettled in this country, how many refugees the U.S. resettled in this country.

S2: And under Obama, it was something like 100000 people a year coming in.

S4: Well, so what happens is every year the federal government establishes it’s called the refugee ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year. And ultimately, it’s the decision of the president. In the last year of the Obama administration, President Obama set as his target number 110000 people, which some people could say from a progressive standpoint, given the resources of the U.S. has the size of its population, that’s not even such a vast number. There are other countries of comparatively smaller size that resettle more people per capita than the U.S. does. But that number is a target. The idea is it is sort of a statement of principle. And also from a practical standpoint, that number matters because it allows the nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. that get federal funding to oversee and implement this process of resettling refugees. That number sets their budget priorities, staffing issues, resources, those kinds of things, and so on. The whole, if you look back historically at how many refugees have actually been resettled every year in the U.S. since 1980 when this program was established, the average is somewhere between 80 and 90 thousand refugees. That number has spiked at certain moments and it’s declined at others.

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S2: So how many people are being resettled each year under the Trump administration?

S4: Every year, the Trump administration has set the refugee ceiling lower and lower. And so it’s first year in office. The White House said the refugee ceiling at what was then the lowest number in history, 45000 people per year. The year after that, it went to 40, then to 30, and is currently at 18000 refugees per year, the lowest, the lowest in the history of the program. And frankly, kind of inconceivable in the history of what U.S., U.S. responsibility has looked like on the refugee front.

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S2: And is that how many people are actually coming in or it’s just an idea of how many we want coming in?

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S4: There are practical dimensions to that number, but there are also symbolic kind of value to the number. In theory, if the White House didn’t want to resettle anyone, it could keep the refugees ceiling at whatever level it was before and then just practically not resettle even half or a quarter or a third of as many people. So the administration has done two things. They’ve both lowered the number, which has, from the White House’s standpoint, the benefit of starving these refugee agencies, resettlement agencies of funding. And they’ve resettled typically fewer people than have been laid out in the annual ceiling figure and a refugee.

S2: We should just define what they are because we’re seeing a number of different immigration trends going on. At the same time, being a refugee is different than being an asylum seeker at the southern border, right?

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S4: That’s right. The kind of primary way of understanding that difference is that an asylum seeker at the southern border is someone who is seeking relief, but who has made the trip, him or herself, to the U.S. border and once at the border has requested that relief. And there are different ways of doing it. What happens to refugees is that they go through a much more elaborate process even before they come to the U.S. They’re essentially selected to come to the US. Typically, it takes between two and three years for a refugee to go through all of that vetting. There’s biometric data that’s taken and checked against intelligence databases. There are multiple interviews. The State Department is involved. The Department of Homeland Security is involved. FBI is involved. Counterterrorism agencies are involved. And at the end of that two to three year process, the refugees trip to the U.S., the expense of even that trip is extended as a loan to the refugee that the refugee that has to eventually pay back on arriving in the U.S., there are nine refugee resettlement agencies that then take the lead in helping that person and his or her family get settled in the country. They help arrange housing for that person or that person’s family, food, clothing, all of the things that you would need if you were starting literally from scratch in a new place.

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S9: And then these refugee resettlement agencies spend generally between one and three months with full funding from the federal government to help at least get people started.

S8: President Trump was aiming to curb refugee resettlement last fall when he issued his executive order, it essentially forced state and local governments to raise their hands if they wanted to accept refugees opt into the program so that if they did nothing. Resettlement agencies would need to find somewhere else for these people to live. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you consider that immigration has become a big flashpoint for local governments. Just last week, this policy was blocked by a federal judge from going into full effect, but not before dozens of states and counties were forced to go through a painful reckoning. As Jonathan watched these debates play out, he couldn’t help but notice that for the White House, even before this order was blocked, it was backfiring.

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S2: The administration seemed to think that forcing local governments to talk publicly about refugee resettlement, but themselves out there, it would be a chance for Republicans to fall in line with the White House’s anti-immigration rhetoric. But as Jonathan Blitzer told me, that is not what happened.

S3: Republican governors, Republican county commissioners all came out and supported the idea of resettling refugees.

S10: County Commission will allow refugees to resettle into the county. It comes days after Governor Mike Parson announced Missouri will continue to allow refugees into the state.

S7: Arizona Governor Douglas, he says the state will keep welcoming refugees.

S11: And new tonight. Governor Hutchinson announces his decision to allow the placement of refugees and legal immigrants in Arkansas.

S12: We benefit from their energy, devotion to freedom, and we want them to be a part of the fabric of our nation, our future and our state. If we say no to them, then we lose the talent, entrepreneurship and humanity of those who love America.

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S3: Really, it’s kind of a slam dunk moral argument. And I think actually, for the most part of your public officials and argument you want to make, it affirms every value you you would have about the role of the U.S. in the world, what it means to be an American. And then, of course, the kind of talking points that are marshaled against refugee resettlement generally go in a few different directions. And they’ve just been systematically rebutted over the years. One is refugees aren’t safe. We don’t know who we’re resettling here. That’s just been manifestly proven false just by the numbers of people who’ve been resettled in the U.S. over the years who have not committed any crimes. And by virtue of the extensive vetting process. So that argument quickly falls away. Then there’s the resource question. And what you see often at the local, local level is county officials saying, I don’t know. You know, we have limited resources, as is we should care for our own first. That argument also doesn’t really land because the refugee program is fully funded by the federal government. So it’s not like these are resources that are being diverted from local or state coffers. And that and that brings up the kind of the last and the most powerful argument, which is communities that have typically resettled large numbers of refugees, have all uniformly described the positive consequences of resettling refugees on the economy in education system. Oftentimes, refugees quickly learn the language. They quickly matriculate in schools, they enter the workforce. And so local and state officials often are very proud, too, of having resettled refugees who are very successfully integrated into the communities and then give back to the state.

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S2: But not all local and state officials are proud. Just before this order was blocked, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, became the first governor to say he was going to refuse to allow refugee resettlement in his state. Gov. Abbott says Texas is already overwhelmed dealing with the flow of asylum seekers at the border, and as a result, the state can’t handle resettling refugees.

S13: You know, there are all kinds of things that are not only wrong with that, but but deliberately misleading about it. You know, one is we’ve talked about these two populations are totally distinct. Two is that Texas is not footing the bill for any of the refugees that resettles in its state. Those refugees are fully funded and accounted for by the federal government. The third thing is right now, the number of people showing up at the U.S. southern border is actually lower than it had been. So over the last several months, that number has has pretty precipitously declined. And there’s a whole policy reason for that. But it makes it pretty strange and more than a little suspicious that the governor of Texas at a moment when after months and months of declining numbers of the southern border would point to numbers at the southern border to try to explain why the state has been overwhelmed by immigrants in in Texas.

S2: But the financial burden argument to a Republican governor who’s sort of worried about, you know, making ends meet, essentially, what would they see in this refugee program that they would just see money flying out the door?

S13: You know, what I what I’ve seen has actually mostly been on the local level rather than the macro state level, like in a governor’s office. But I think if someone were to take a kind of dim view of this issue and assume that the costs will quickly rack up, I think it’s drain on the educational system, drain on the health care system, and that maybe there are state relief agencies that end up getting pulled into having to support refugees as they struggle to get on their feet, things of that sort.

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S2: Well, you can see the argument of like a county government where they need to make sure they have enough school buses. And all the sudden we have an influx of a hundred kids and the school is not quite big enough. And we need for extra buses and I have to pay for that. You know, the federal government does have to worry about that.

S13: That’s true. You know, on the other side of that argument, it is not like. You were dealing with a kind of sudden horde of people descending on your community. I mean, to go back to the North Dakota example from from the county that includes Bismarck, where where that debate took place, you know, ninety five thousand residents, 24 refugees resettled over the course of a year. So, you know, the numbers really don’t support that sense of of local resources being overwhelmed. But but it’s true. And I do think in a lot of communities, there has been the feeling that the federal government has forgotten about them. And so this plays into that for sure.

S2: So let’s talk about a state, a Republican state that’s decided to opt into this program. Tennessee was one of the states has written a letter saying we’re going to be allowing refugees here. And for a lot of observers. That was especially surprising. Can you explain why?

S13: Yeah. Tennessee has always been a really interesting state on immigration issues generally and refugee resettlement issues specifically because Tennessee, beginning in around 2011 was kind of at the national vanguard of the anti-refugee movement. You start to see in different forms a lot of bills crop up in the state legislature, things like saying counties should have a say in whether or not they resettle refugees. There were all kinds of other much more inflammatory things like anti-Sharia law, legislation, things that were just designed to inflame sentiments in the state. And then the trends in Tennessee and the trends nationally and internationally sort of pick up in 2015. So in the fall of 2015, there’s that gruesome terrorist attack in Paris. And immediately after that attack, a lot of Republican governors come out and say, we don’t want to be resettling Syrian refugees unless we have guarantees and assurances from the federal government that no terrorists will come into the country and into our communities. And so Tennessee, at that time, Tennessee, Texas, all these Republican states all sign on to that initial what was kind of a call for a moratorium on refugee resettlement. What’s interesting in terms of the dichotomy of how Texas and Tennessee sort of part ways is that in the fall of 2016, the then governor of Tennessee, a moderate Republican, second term Republican named Bill Haslam, comes out and says, all right, you know what, I’ve been persuaded vetting is serious enough. The federal government is on top of this and it’s a significant move because we’re talking September 2016. And nevertheless, this Republican governor in the notoriously conservative state of Tennessee comes out, says, no, I’m convinced. I’m convinced that we’ve actually accounted for the security question. We should begin to resettle refugees again in our state.

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S2: So even though Tennessee was sort of at the forefront of some of this anti-refugee sentiments, they ended up in a completely different place a few years later. Does that tell you anything about where this argument the Trump administration is making is headed?

S13: Well, it’s a really interesting question from my reporting. The aim of this executive order was to try to ostracize any, I would say, specifically Republican state that wanted to resettle refugees instead. When you have 42 states, so 42 states, I should say I’m counting who have opted in, and one state that has held off the burden now falls to that one state to sort of explain why, unlike all these other Republican states, they have chartered their own course. You know, from a legal standpoint, this is a hard order for the administration to defend why there is a federal law passed in 1980 that lays out what the refugee program looks like, how it’s designed to operate. That is to say, the federal government has mandated what the process should be. And the idea that the administration is trying to turn that process on its head and allow states total say over whether or not they resettle refugees flies in the face of the basic statutory language of the law that created the refugee program in the first place. It’s ironic. It’s more than a little ironic, actually, that the administration is now having to defend this particular policy in court when all of the other kind of sweeping immigration policies that the administration has had to defend in federal court, the Muslim and and other things have tended to rest on the argument that the executive has broad and essentially unfettered authority to set immigration policy here. It’s actually the opposite. The administration is trying to say, owner, are we sure we have total authority because we can do whatever we want. But what we want here is to actually delegate all of this authority to states and localities so that if they don’t want to resettle refugees, they don’t have to. So they’re trying to have it both ways. They’re trying to have it both ways. And, you know, I’m not. Not a lawyer, and I’m not a legal expert, but I I imagine that that will be an uphill battle for government lawyers in court.

S14: Jonathan Bozer, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for. Jonathan Blitzer covers immigration for The New Yorker.

S15: And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson? Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt and Morra Silvers. Tell me what you think of what we’re up to. Find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.