The Trump administration announced last week a maximum of 45,000 refugees to be allowed resettlement in the United States in 2018. The justifications for this antagonism toward resettling refugees are that they might be terrorists and that resettlement costs too much money. The administration misses the mark on both counts.
The Refugee Act of 1980 gave the president, in consultation with Congress, the power to set an annual cap, which in 1980 was 231,700, more than five times the current level of 45,000.
After 9/11, the trend has been toward a lower annual ceiling for refugees resettled in the United States. Still, since the 1980 act gave them authority, no U.S. president has set a cap as low as Donald Trump has.
The world in 2017 is turbulent, but I believe this policy further endangers America.
Make no mistake, we are threatened by extremists bent on destroying democracies like ours. But allowing an abnormally low number of refugees to enter the United States hurts far more than it helps the cause in the fight against terrorism, because it will diminish America’s soft power in the world.
Hard power is the kind of power used to coerce others into doing what you want them to do: threats of violence, economic sanctions, and so on. Hard power hasn’t helped us much in the fight against extremism; the threats today from groups like ISIS are arguably greater than ever.
To effectively fight violent extremism we need soft power. Soft power helps us recruit allies and friends who sign on to our international agenda — they want the kind of world we want. When we slam the door on refugees, we legitimize fear of Muslims and nonwhites in America and foster hatred and resentment toward America abroad. We feed the motivation of would-be terrorists.
When the United States welcomed refugees from communist countries during the Cold War, it did so to shame communism. We sent an ideological message about how much more desirable life in the United States was than in countries under the communist thumb.
After the 1979 Geneva Conference on refugees had drawn attention to thousands dying as they fled Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, we accepted nearly half of the 2.5 million refugees.
In the early 1990s, the United States again increased its refugee ceiling to accommodate those fleeing the explosion of civil wars worldwide, from Yugoslavia to Republic of Congo.
Each time, we made friends and influenced people. We increased our soft power globally and showcased American leadership.
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that displaced millions, we took too few refugees.
Now, amid the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, America is slamming the door on some of the world’s most desperate victims.
Is this the wise response to a situation in which refugees flow by the thousands into countries that neighbor the world’s worst conflicts? Syria, with a population of only 18 million, took in more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in the years before the current conflict erupted there, according to one estimate. Do we really want to foist the burden of refugees on countries already teetering on the brink of failure?
As to the debate over whether or not refugees are a net economic drain or benefit, a recent report commissioned by the administration — but later rejected by it — has persuasive evidence of refugees’ net contribution.
Ignored in the debate is our historic responsibility to meet our moral obligations, given our military involvement abroad. It’s an obligation that needs to be discussed urgently. Yes, we are driven by an understandable passion to root out terrorists, but I believe there is ample evidence that shows refugee reductions have reduced our soft power and made America less safe.
During and after the Cold War, we accepted refugees from communist countries even though many were afraid they would export that “subversive and dangerous” ideology and put the United States at risk. Now, we are letting similar fears — this time about terrorism — get the best of us.
By disdaining refugees in the name of national security and economics, America comes across as less of a global leader. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed G-20 countries to be more confident in German Chancellor Angela Merkel than in President Trump.
Resettling just 110,000 refugees, the number set by Barack Obama before he left office, out of 21 million stateless people worldwide, would be a strong, symbolic gesture. Through our commitment to freedom and our compassion, we would gain soft power, and ultimately help advance the American agenda abroad.
With our large military footprint, we play a role in exacerbating dozens of the current conflicts that rage around the globe and displace millions. Not only are we morally bound to welcome more refugees — doing so is also good for American national security. Win-win.
Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba is an associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. @profsciubba