While immigration has long been contentious, the U.S. used to have a bipartisan consensus on accepting refugees. But the Trump administration has drastically reduced refugee resettlement while turning away asylum seekers. What was the basis of that consensus and what went wrong? Rebecca Hamlin finds that U.S. refugee policy is less insulated from political pressure than Canada’s, opening it to Trump’s influence. But our attempts to cleanly separate refugees from other migrants are too binary, hampering the debate. Idean Salehyan finds that refugee experts widely agree on the benefits of the resettlement program, finding Trump’s latest moves a dangerous aberration based on conflation with the wider immigration debate.

Studies:Let Me Be a Refugee” and “The Strategic Case for Refugee Resettlement” 

Interviews: Rebecca Hamlin, University of Massachusetts and Idean Salehyan, University of North Texas


Matt Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how Trump is disrupting refugee policy. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. The Trump administration has drastically reduced refugee resettlement while turning away asylum seekers. While immigration has long been contentious, the US used to have a bipartisan consensus on accepting refugees. So what’s the basis of that consensus and what went wrong? Today I talk with Rebecca Hamlin of the University of Massachusetts about her book, Let Me Be a Refugee, and her book in development, Crossing. She finds that US refugee policy is less insulated from political pressure than Canada’s, opening it to Trump influence.

Matt Grossmann: But our attempts to cleanly separate refugees from other migrants are too binary, hampering the debate. But I also talked to Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas about his Niskanen report, the Strategic Case for Refugee Resettlement. He finds that refugee experts widely agree on the benefits of the resettlement program, finding Trump’s latest move a dangerous aberration, based on his conflation with the wider immigration debate. They both were motivated to apply research to the current debate. For Hamlin, it was that academics and advocates assume a divide that isn’t clear.

Rebecca Hamlin: I’ve been frustrated with how the academic study of border crossing get siloed into two pretty separate arenas. The migration studies, literature and refugee studies. I personally think we miss an awful lot by not being more closely in conversation across those two areas, especially when we’re thinking about people whose categorization is unclear and ambiguous. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to study refugees and other migrants separately. I’ve also been disturbed, as I mentioned a minute ago, by the way that people in organizations who ostensibly want to help vulnerable people end up talking about border crossing.

In particular, some refugee advocacy organizations including the UN, often to my mind, throw other border crossers under the bus in the process of protecting the people that they believe they’re mandated to help by emphasizing the particularity of the refugee experience in order to help some but not all people. So, yes, the intensity of the current debate has made me more inspired to get the argument out there, but it’s been going on for a while and it’s particularly come to a head in the way that I’ve been observing public debate for probably about five years.

Matt Grossmann: For Salehyan, it was a return to prior research based on the rise of a previously a political issue.

Idean Salehyan: Kind of came back to my roots. Long time ago, I did an undergraduate thesis, it was an honors thesis looking at US and Canadian refugee and asylum policy and the historical trajectory of it and compliance with International Law. Then in graduate school my interests became much more global. So I did a series of articles on the international implications of refugee flows, it’s consequences for regional instability and security problems and things of that sort. It was mostly quantitative work that had a global cross-national perspective. In refugee policy, there’s not a whole lot of academic research or a lot of interest in refugee policy because refugee policy for years has almost been an afterthought in the overall immigration debate. Members of Congress debate border enforcement, debate economic migration, who should get in, right?

These are hot political issues and there’s been more academic research on those matters and less on the refugee admissions program because everyone just kind of agreed that this was a good policy and there really wasn’t a there, there. That really changed with this administration. The administration very robustly started attacking the Refugee Admissions Program. For me as an academic researcher, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch a program that had benefited so many millions of people; a, fall into disrepute because the president was questioning the motives of refugees and questioning their legitimacy and also significantly cutting the numbers.

Matt Grossmann: US refugee policy was born of the Cold War and Hamlin says it’s been difficult for advocates to work within the refugee definition chosen for political persecution.

Rebecca Hamlin: The definition of a refugee was written in its current form in International Law in 1951 in the Refugee Convention. It was basically written by the victors of World War II, and in many ways it’s a Cold War relic. It conceptualizes the reasons why people flee their country in terms of ideological or identity-based persecution. It’s very liberal in sort of the classical sense. It’s modeled on the idea of a person in exile, a dissident. That’s sort of the basic textual limitation that people advocating for border crossers have to work with. To be clear about the terminology, an asylum seeker is someone who comes directly to another country and asks to be recognized as a refugee. That stands in sort of in contrast to the people who have been recognized overseas, either by the US State Department or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and have been given refugee status overseas and are then resettled.

When I talk about refugees, I talk about people who’ve been resettled from overseas and asylum seekers are the ones asking for that status right here on our own doorstep. But legal advocates for asylum seekers and other people who view themselves as refugees have gotten, have had to get very creative over the years because of the limitations of the definition that I mentioned and it’s been a really interesting, there’s a very rich and interesting history that I could go into about how in general lawyers have been pretty successful in pushing more expansive interpretations of the definition over time. The definition has been expanded to conceptually include people seeking protection from gender based violence, from sexuality-based violence, violence at the hands of non-state actors like gangs or rebel groups. But the interpretation of the definition still varies a lot by country despite the guidance that the UNHCR has issued encouraging states to read the legal definition very broadly.

And so part of what we’ve seen in the US in the past couple of years is the Trump administration pulling way back on a lot of the legal advances by using the power of the attorney general to undo past precedent setting decisions and issue new precedents that read the definition much more narrowly and classically in ways that make it really difficult for people coming from, for example, the Northern Triangle of central America to make successful claims. This is a really clear cut example of what I talked about in my book, which is, the ways in which our uninsulated system in the US is really vulnerable to exclusionary politics.

Matt Grossmann: Salehyan says it started as an anti-Soviet policy and expanded in the 1980s but retains its foreign policy role.

Idean Salehyan: During the early part of the Cold War, really up until 1980, the United States explicitly defined a refugee as someone fleeing communist countries or countries in the Middle East. It was very clearly in our refugee definition that accepting people who are defecting from communist regimes was something that we should be doing to kind of show the world the ills of communism and that people were voting with their feet to come to the United States. That changed. The definition changed in 1980 to bring the US definition in line with International Law, with the 1951 Refugee Convention.

And since then we’ve had two different streams of entering the United States as a refugee, the asylum process where people present themselves at a port of entry and claim a well founded fear of persecution in their home country, in which case their claims are adjudicated here domestically. The Refugee Resettlement Program is a bit different in that the United States actively selects refugees from abroad to bring to the United States. So, they could be Vietnamese refugees in a camp in Malaysia for example, and they’d be screened and processed there prior to entering United States.

During the 1980s, a lot of agreement among academics that both programs did have a continued anticommunist tinge to it. Not to say that we weren’t accepting refugees from a variety of countries, but we tended to put priority on people fleeing communism. That rationale sort of obviously changed after the end of the Cold War, although we continued particularly through the Refugee Resettlement Program to prioritize certain countries and certain refugee populations over others because it wasn’t just the humanitarian right thing to do, but also because we had a foreign policy interest in the region. So, it’s kind of a… you can’t really say it’s a legacy of the Cold War anymore, but still a foreign policy rationale informing the refugee admissions process still continues to this day.

Matt Grossmann: But even with the same international norms, Hamlin finds big differences in practices across the US, Canada and Australia due to different levels of political insulation.

Rebecca Hamlin: The puzzle that I explored in that book was that there were these three countries who are so similar in so many ways. They are all liberal democracies with powerful courts. They’re all immigration settlement countries. I mean, they’re all interpreting the exact same legal definition of a refugee in their administrative procedures that they use to determine whether people should get refugee status. But on a lot of different countries that were sending people to the US, Canada and Australia, they had wildly different acceptance rates for otherwise very similarly situated asylum seekers.

The range, for example, for applicants from the People’s Republic of China was tremendously varied with Canada being consistently far more likely to grant people refugee status from that country and the US somewhere in the middle and quite variable over time. And then Australia quite consistently hostile to those types of claims. So, that was kind of the thing, the puzzle that led me to dig a little deeper into the administrative procedures that adjudicate these claims. Basically the main takeaway is that I found that the level of insulation that the design of the administrative institutions allow from the exclusionary politics of immigration control was the factor that explained that variation.

Countries with a higher level of insulation from these politics, for example, Canada can withstand short term waves of anti-immigrant sentiment and their policies don’t dramatically change or become more hostile to refugees due to those political whims or winds pushing on the systems. Whereas in the US there’s, and in Australia, a much higher level of susceptibility to anti-immigrant sentiment that can sort of infiltrate the administrative decision making processes quite rapidly. And we’re really seeing that in the US right now.

Matt Grossmann: And now Canadian policy is shifting even more, welcoming along with its rhetoric, going in the opposite direction as the US.

Rebecca Hamlin: Trudeau and Trump kind of couldn’t be more different in the way that they’ve sort of staked out their positions on these matters. In practice over the past three years, it hasn’t just been a rhetorical difference. Canada has been far more generous to both refugees and asylum seekers than the US has been. This was most sort of starkly laid out last year when Canada actually resettled more refugees from overseas than the US did for the first time. They resettled 28,000 people in 2018 compared to the US who resettled 23,000, which doesn’t seem like a big difference, but you have to remember that Canada has one 10th of the population that the US does. So for it to be resettling more people in raw numbers than the US is pretty striking.

The other thing that’s been hard for Trudeau is that, and this is kind of ironic, but in large part due to the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration of all kinds, Canada has been experiencing an unprecedented number of what’s known as spontaneous arrivals. So people just coming across the US Canada border to seek asylum. And that was pretty new for Canada to have people coming in at that scale, and it’s above and beyond any people that Canada has pledged to resettle from overseas. And it’s been really costly for Canada to process all of those people.

Rebecca Hamlin: So there’s definitely been some backlash on Trudeau for the fact that he kind of laid out the welcome mat. I mean, literally tweeted, refugees are welcome, in response to the Trump travel ban when it was first announced. I think even yesterday I just saw the Toronto Sun, which is a major Canadian newspaper, had an editorial kind of excoriating him for how much his welcome attitude towards asylum seekers has been costing Canada. There’s an election on October 21st, so I guess we’ll find out, although it’s pretty hard to separate out whether the backlash will be against Trudeau for that or many other scandals that he’s been caught up in recently though.

Matt Grossmann: Meanwhile the US is moving toward Australian policies.

Rebecca Hamlin: The US under Trump has been looking a lot more Australian lately. We seem to be watching and learning from Australia and adopting some of the practices that have come under the most criticism that Australia uses. For example, for years, Australia has been trying to avoid fulfilling its obligations under International Law by taking asylum seekers that are apprehended at sea and diverting them to offshore processing centers. Offshore meaning off of the territory of the country of Australia. So, paying small island nations to house massive detention centers. These detention centers are notoriously awful places where asylum seekers have routinely attempted suicide.

We don’t know the sum total of what goes on in there because they’re very hard to access. But from what the media has learned, they’re terribly, terribly depressing and unsafe places. The US seems to really be emulating this policy of offshore processing with what they’re calling these new “safe third country agreements” that the US is negotiating with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The US is basically using its might to pressure these smaller countries into housing asylum seekers that were trying to come to America and by keeping these people in countries that are not adjacent to the United States and that are far less powerful than the United States, we’re keeping them out of sight and out of mind. To me it’s the same tactic that Australia has been using for quite some time. We basically just adopted it.

Matt Grossmann: There are separate policies for refugees already cleared elsewhere and asylum seekers, such as those at the southern border. But lately they’ve been conflated politically.

Idean Salehyan: Under International Law, anyone fleeing persecution on the basis of certain criteria, their political beliefs, their religion, their race and so on qualifies for refugee protection status. But there are two separate streams for entering the United States. The first is the Refugee Admissions Program, the subject of the report. And those refugees are screened overseas. They usually have an initial hearing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to determine that their refugee status is in fact valid. And then a subset of those, usually the most vulnerable, people with health concerns or security concerns in refugee camps are referred for resettlement and become candidates for resettlement.

When they’re put into that pipeline, various US agencies screen those individuals. They do multiple in person interviews, they collect biometric information there, they do a health screening, run their information through international databases, they do a cultural orientation. The process takes as long as two years, sometimes more, to get through the multiple layers of security checks and screen that we put in place. There’s additional screening for Syrian. So it’s even more stringent for Syrians. And only at that point would they be eligible for entry. So it’s a very rigorous process.

And since 1980, we’ve admitted 3 million refugees, over 3 million refugees through the resettlement program, and not a single one has been involved in a fatal terrorist attack in the United States. Now that’s not to say that the program has worked absolutely flawlessly. There have been some isolated incidents of potential involvement and plot, usually involving foreign financing of suspected terrorist groups, but those are relatively small. I mean, they’re really a handful compared to the millions of people that we’ve successfully assisted and integrated in the United States. It’s a very rigorous program.

The Cato Institute actually did a wonderful report that said something like the risk of being an American being killed by a refugee is one in three and a half billion or something like that. It’s an astronomically small number. That’s one entry way.

Now, when the Syrian refugee crisis happened and people started seeing refugees flow into Europe through Greece and Italy and go into places like Germany and, yes, there were some disruptions associated with that.

That was a very different process and that in some ways looks more like what’s happening currently on the southern border. These are people that come to the United States, or in the Syrian case, were coming to Germany, presenting themselves there and then having their applications heard domestically through, you know, the adjudication process there.

In the United States immigration courts handle asylum and only at that point are they admitted to the United States. Now while they’re there and having their case being heard, people are afforded temporary residence in the US so the Central American crisis is quite different in how people are coming to the United States to access our refugee admissions and our humanitarian admissions programs from the overseas resettlement component. Oftentimes those two things are conflated. People are not exactly clear about how those are different, but they work in fundamentally different ways.

Matt Grossmann: It’s new for the Trump administration to explicitly link these policies, Salehyan says, but there is some trade-off.

Idean Salehyan: If you actually look at the report that came out from the State Department, so the State Department every year issues a report on refugee resettlement priorities. There’s, you know, very clearly a justification there for reducing, significantly reducing, the cap on overseas refugee admissions.

Part of the justification is, “Look what we’re doing on the southern border in processing asylum claims.” No administration in the past has done that. These were considered two separate categories and people admitted through the asylum process would not count against numbers of refugees coming through the refugee process. That is being done very explicitly.

You know, I’d also like to say that there is some trade-off between the two, between refugee admissions and asylum admissions. Under Obama there was a small, but it did exist, in-country refugee screening process in Central America.

We had offices in Central America and when people had a claim of persecution either by the government or gangs and so on, they could be screened in-country and then referred through the refugee admissions process. Now that door has been closed.

What do people do? People who are desperate because their lives are at risk? They present themselves at the border. There are trade-offs here. If you reduce the refugee resettlement numbers, people that are desperate, that need to flee because their life is at risk, will come and present themselves at the border and be screened at the border.

Matt Grossmann: Hamlin agrees that Trump is explicitly pitting refugee resettlement against asylum seekers at the border.

Rebecca Hamlin: Our recent decision to cut drastically our refugee resettlement numbers is one of the many ways in which this administration has undermined US international leadership.

I guess what I would add to that point is that I think it’s really important to understand what this administration is doing pitting refugees and asylum seekers against each other in a zero sum way. I think we miss some of this context if we think about refugee resettlement as an international or foreign policy and then asylum as a domestic immigration policy because these two policies are being wrapped together in a really interesting way.

The State Department announced last week that the US is only going to resettle 18,000 people next fiscal year, which is 5,000 lower than last year and the lowest number in the history of the program.

But what was really interesting to me in reading the announcement is that the State Department has been very clear that the reason they say they can’t resettle more people waiting patiently abroad is that it is so expensive to address the situation at the US/Mexico border and the US has never before linked refugee resettlement numbers to asylum processing costs in such an explicit way.

It’s a new practice that, again, we seem to have taken from Australia who does the same thing. For every asylum visa they grant, they reduce their resettlement numbers by one and they’re very public about it.

Of course, it’s in many ways absurd to say that asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border who are being cast here as the undeserving ones are taking money away from needy refugees waiting patiently overseas. But it’s a really brilliant political strategy because it pits advocates against each other, asylum advocates and refugee international advocates against each other. Also, I think it does really interesting things with public opinion with people who might really care about protecting refugees and this rhetoric actively sort of disassociates what’s happening at our US border from the idea of refugee protection and puts them in competition with one another.

Matt Grossmann: The debates about spontaneous arrivals, however, are not new in form or content.

Rebecca Hamlin: These debates that we’re hearing today are very familiar and have been going on in this country for quite some time. Debates around who are these people? Why are they coming here? Are they really refugees deserving of our sympathy and help or are they really greedy economic migrants trying to take our jobs or, God forbid, are they terrorists trying to kill Americans?

We’ve had these types of conversations about spontaneous arrivals at our borders for as long as we’ve had a refugee policy in the United States. Consistently, the US government has cast people who don’t serve our national interest as non-refugees and cast people who do serve our national interests as refugees.

During the Cold War, for example, you know, we took most, anyone who wanted to come from Cuba and from the USSR and labeled them refugees, but people fleeing right-wing dictatorships in Central America or people fleeing Haiti were systematically refused in brutal ways. In terms of the conversations we’re having, the types of people who are coming and the general reaction to them in the public, it’s really not that different than in the past. I would say the biggest difference is the degree to which the Trump administration is getting creative about how to say no.

But there has been real policy change under Trump, not just rhetoric.

The remain in Mexico policy, which is forcing people to stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are being processed, the safe third country agreements that I mentioned, which are sort of trying to shunt people away from the border and make them wait somewhere else, policies that are penalizing people for not waiting endlessly in Mexico and trying to cross the border illegally. Then once people are here, these precedent setting decisions that I mentioned through which the attorney general is narrowing the way in which we interpret the definition. Sort of at every level, at every turn they’re sort of clamping down in new ways that the US had not previously used as a strategy.

Matt Grossmann: Salehyan focused on refugee resettlement. Refugee experts agree that it has been very successful for the US leading to broad favorable consensus.

Idean Salehyan: This was a qualitative study and this summer, summer of 2019, I interviewed 15 people that had some role in the US refugee admissions program. These were officials from department of state, specifically population refugees and migration, from Department of Homeland security, the National Security Council. It was a variety of agencies and they also served under various administrations from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan all the way through to Donald Trump. We covered every administration, that includes both Republican appointees and Democrats or people that worked under Democrat administrations.

There was a remarkable consistency in some of the answers. I transcribed the interviews and coded them thematically according to major themes. Despite this diversity of views there was consistency on five basic points and I’ll just summarize them very, very quickly because I’m sure we’ll be getting into them.

The first is the US humanitarian leadership on refugee affairs really does matter for getting other nations to respond adequately to refugee crises, either through financial contributions or through resettlements on their own. When the United States acts subsequently other countries act.

Secondly, refugee policy has long been integral to a holistic foreign policy strategy. It has a number of foreign policy benefits beyond the obvious humanitarian implications. It helps to bring stability to troubled regions in the world. It helps foster cooperation with allies and it promotes a positive United States image in the world.

The third main point was that there was broad bipartisan support really up until the Trump administration where Republican and Democratic administrations and members of Congress all agreed on the value of the program, but that really started to break down with the Syrian refugee crisis and fears about potential terrorists abusing the program.

The fourth point that they all agreed on was that the current vetting procedures are extremely robust, that it’s very unlikely for a potential terrorist to try to use the refugee admissions process to gain admission to the United States for malicious intent.

Then finally everyone agreed that the current deep cuts to refugee resettlement numbers are really not good policy and urged a return to historic standards.

Matt Grossmann: Refugees were often associated with our military and foreign policy efforts.

Idean Salehyan: A large share of the refugees that have come since 1980 since the passage of the Refugee Act were from countries where the United States had an active military involvement. The largest refugee flow that we received in the 1980s were Vietnamese. Many of them were people that worked with the United States in South Vietnam and were fleeing persecution because of that affiliation.

We also had refugee admissions programs for Iraqis and Afghans that worked with the United States in those contexts as interpreters, as contractors, people that worked alongside the US military. Kind of the bargain we struck with them was if you support our military efforts, should you get in trouble for that cooperation that the United States would in some way bail you out, would assist you and your family in seeking safety. If we fail to live up to those promises, it’s very unlikely than in future engagements, people will want to cooperate with the United States.

The second way that refugee policy benefits foreign policy is that mass disorderly refugee flows can be quite destabilizing to neighboring countries. If you think about the Syrian refugee crisis. It has generated 6 million refugees. A quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees. Turkey has been impacted in a very large way with a very substantial number of refugees, same with Jordan.

That has a economic impact on those countries. It also affects social relations. For example, in Lebanon, the sectarian makeup in Lebanon mirrors and resembles the sectarian makeup in Syria. Because of those ethnic and sectarian ties, these refugee flows are often seen with alarm, can potentially be destabilizing. The United States has used the refugee program historically to ease the burden on those countries of first asylum.

We did it with the Indochinese exodus in Southeast Asia. Again, in the Balkans with the crisis in Bosnia and Kosovo our bargain with the neighboring countries was that if they cooperate with humanitarian and military efforts that we would take some of the refugees and resettle them here domestically in order to avert further regional destabilization.

The third one that’s maybe less tangible is that refugee policy and having a welcoming open society cast the United States in a positive light among international audiences. There was strong agreement from the experts about this as well is that when the United States is seen as a good actor on the international stage, that’s incredibly important as a tool of some would say soft power in generating goodwill and fostering cooperation with other things that we care about as well.

Matt Grossmann: There used to be bipartisan support for resettlement until 2015.

Idean Salehyan: There was very substantial bipartisan support for the refugee admissions program. Actually, the president that admitted the most refugees during his term in office was Ronald Reagan, a Republican, followed by George W. Bush. Numbers since then have stayed relatively consistent. The historical average has been somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 more or less depending on international circumstances. Congress was largely on board with whatever numbers the State Department and the administration would put forth.

I won’t put the blame entirely on Trump because in 2015 what you saw was a number of governors, nearly all Republicans save one, express concern about Syrian refugees coming to the United States. My governor, Governor Abbott in Texas, was one of many governors who signed a letter saying that refugees would not be welcome in their state, refugees from Syria in particular. They were responding to the November, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. You know, there was a legitimate public concern about who these people were.

I mean, we were afraid of ISIS and bad actors trying to enter the West through this procedure. Although, you know, many of those claims were overblown. You know, I think there was an opportunity there to inform the public about the security and safety of the program. But anyway, in 2015 you started to see this unraveling of this bipartisan consensus.

Then candidate Trump during his election campaign made refugee admissions a campaign issue and we’d never really seen that before in the United States and explicitly said that we should bar Muslim migrants and refugees from coming to the United States. I think, you know, he said until we can figure out what the hell is going on. He kind of played into the public fear at the time instead of trying to tamp it down and then it’s become a partisan issue.

Now contrast that with George HW Bush. In 2001, people who are in the United States on various work visas launched the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the microscope was on all forms of immigration to the United States.

Although very quickly after we put in additional screening procedures and reformed our immigration system almost in its entirety, the numbers came back to the historic norm and President Bush made it very explicit that the war on terrorism was not a war on Islam, that Islam was not the problem, it was radical actors acting in the name of Islam. Even though there were security concerns at that time, we quickly got back to the historic norm.

Now, Trump has not done that. In my view, and the view of a number of the experts that I talked to this is part and parcel of an overall administration goal of reducing the number of migrants across the border coming to the United States.

That includes the border wall, DACA, obviously immigration, refugee and asylum admissions, detention on the border in the hopes of deterring potential migrants. You see a number of policies, and the refugee admissions program is just one of them, in which the administration has very robustly and aggressively attacked all forms of immigration to the United States and among his base that’s popular. There’s long been in the United States an undercurrent or a segment of the population that is uncomfortable with demographic change and they’ve responded to Trump very robustly and they support these crackdowns on all forms of immigration.

Matt Grossmann: The end of bipartisan consensus came when refugees started being part of the general immigration discussion.

Idean Salehyan: The bipartisan consensus, I won’t say has completely broken down, because there are strong Republican voices in the house and the Senate that continue to defend the refugee program. We’ve heard from military leaders, including retired General Mattis who left the state department, who have defended the refugee admissions program.

There’s always been a partisan fight with respect to immigration in general, but the refugee resettlement program was protected from that debate in Congress. Republican administrations, Democratic administrations floated the refugee numbers and there were hearings in Congress.

Particular members of Congress might’ve made race concerned about why aren’t you doing more for this group versus that group? By and large, the program had support and was outside of the debate about the immigration system overall. That’s long been contentious, but the refugee program was not.

My fear is that in the future, if a Democratic administration or a future Republican administration should try to bring the numbers back in line with the historic norm, that it’ll again be the subject of a partisan fight where it had never had been before.

Matt Grossmann: Hamlin says it’s not easy to separate people based on the reasons they migrate.

Rebecca Hamlin: The conventional wisdom is that there’s two distinct types of people who cross borders, refugees and migrants. That refugees are the deserving and vulnerable people who are forced to flee against their will. That migrants are people who are self serving, voluntarily choosing to cross borders for their own economic gain.

That binary way of thinking about things assumes that people crossing borders can be sorted out correctly by the processes that governments establish to screen people. It assumes that the people who are assigned refugee status by those processes that States establish are the neediest people.

There’s lots of reasons to doubt those assumptions. There’s all kinds of ethnographic work that has shown how the motivations of people who leave their homes, regardless of where they’re coming from, look pretty similar. They’re multiple and they’re complicated, and at the very least they fall on a continuum between forced and voluntary, not a binary with an awful lot of people in the middle who leave their homes because they don’t believe they have other options.

The reasons that they leave could be a combination of political, persecution, economic, strife. To add a new wrinkle, climate change is making these distinctions even more complicated than ever. I think there’s also no reason to be confident that border control measures that States put in place and the procedures that States use to screen people out identify the neediest and most deserving people for protection.

I think it’s really important for us to use what we’ve learned as scholars of migration to expose these assumptions and be more honest about what is actually happening in these border zones.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a risk of playing into the trap of narrowing the refugee category as far as possible.

Rebecca Hamlin: A lot of advocates are going to say that. They’re going to say, “We have a politics right now that is only open to protecting a few people. If we aren’t very careful to maintain this very narrow band of protection for some,” if you admit the emperor has no clothes, then maybe we risk losing the ability to protect anyone at all.

I think we are already very, very close to that point would be one of my responses. Part of the slight of hand that the Trump administration is engaging in is to insist that they’re very, very keen on protecting refugees. Then at all turns the refugees are not the ones that are actually asking for protection right now.

The refugees are somewhere else waiting patiently and we can’t help them, because we’re having to spend so much money and time on these other economic migrants pretending to be refugees. I think that we activists sometimes play into that trap by talking about how important it is to protect refugees and not migrants.

One of the other underlying assumptions of this binary way of thinking is that refugees are really rare. It allows us to imagine that most of the border control measures that are put in place in the world are truly doing a good job of screening out non genuine or non deserving people.

I don’t personally have any confidence that, that’s what they’re doing.

Matt Grossmann: Salehyan says it’s dangerous to conflate economic and political motivations and countries can’t adjudicate.

Idean Salehyan: There has been historically a distinction between economic migrants and political refugees. I do agree that there is somewhat of a spectrum. There’s, let’s say an H-1B high skilled worker who wants to come to the United States and has a job opportunity. Well, that’s very clearly an economic opportunity for that individual.

Then there’s someone in which the secret police comes to their house and threatens to kill them and within 48 hours they’ve escaped the country, right? There are people that maybe have a mix of these things. I think it’s very dangerous to try to conflate them and try to say, “Well, is this person moving for mostly economic reasons or mostly political reasons?”

Then trying to adjudicate who has a legitimate refugee claim. Refugees have often, and asylum seekers, have often been accused of being bogus refugees, people that are just coming for economic opportunity and are manufacturing claims of persecution in order to gain admissions.

There are standards of evidence in U.S courts for establishing, well what is a well founded fear of persecution? What categories of individuals, what types of persecution apply? There is a body of law there and we do have precedent for adjudicating these cases.

I think we’ve done a fairly good job of trying to distinguish between the two. Now that said, there are things that are not exactly clear, right? If a government is denying economic opportunities to say an ethnic group that’s seen as arrival, denying them social services like education and schooling, discriminating against them for public service jobs and also harassing political leaders and harassing its opponents.

Well, those economic policies are persecutory. Yes, there is a mix of motives potentially, but I think we need to be clear about why refugees are coming. They’re primarily coming because they are fleeing personal, often physical harm, if not death if they should return to their country.

We shouldn’t try to question or murky their motivations by saying, “Well you also had an economic motive too, so therefore you’re not a legitimate refugee.” I think a reasonable person would say that someone who fears for their life and their safety and that of their family does have a right not to be returned to a place where they’re in danger.

Matt Grossmann: The U.S change is part of an international backlash, he says.

Idean Salehyan: You have seen a reversal in many countries of relatively generous refugee and asylum admissions. I won’t go into detail, but you’ve seen this trend, and again, it didn’t start with Trump. It goes back at least a decade if not more, where voters in Australia and France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany are responding to migration and demographic change very forcefully.

It’s led to the rise of populist parties. Some would call them far right parties, and they’ve had significant electoral success. That’s put pressure on mainstream politicians, including, for example, Angela Merkel to reform asylum and refugee admissions in a more restrictionist direction.

Matt Grossmann: Syrian asylum seekers caused a backlash in Europe because they were unknown, Hamlin says, not like the U.S resettlement program.

Rebecca Hamlin: There has been a major backlash in Europe too. The idea of being welcoming to spontaneous arrivals. I do think it’s important to be clear about the distinction. The people who are coming into Europe in 2015, 2016, they were referred to by some people in the media as Syrian refugees, but they had not actually been subjected to the process of refugee status determination individualized processing that people being resettled from that same region are subjected to before they come to the U.S or Canada.

When Trudeau said, and Obama said that they were going to reset a large numbers of Syrian refugees, these are people who are very, very thoroughly vetted, to use Trump’s phrase, who had gone through many background checks and security checks before they were allowed to the U.S and Canada.

That stands in quite sharp contrast to the people who came into Europe before being processed. I think that it’s an important distinction, because when a lot of Republican governors in the U.S announced that they weren’t going to be willing to host Syrian refugees in their States.

In the aftermath of the Paris bombings, they were talking about how it was Syrian refugees who carried out the Paris bombings. That’s actually an inaccurate way of talking about who those people were. No one coming to the U.S from Syria is coming directly without this really thorough screening.

It’s a slightly different thing. I think that when there’s political backlash, and we even have seen it with Trudeau, it’s not so much about choosing to resettle Syrians that he’s suffered for. It’s people pouring across the border who are more unknown. That’s the thing that seems to cause people a lot of anxiety all over the world.

Matt Grossmann: She reminds us that most displaced people stay close by in the global South.

Rebecca Hamlin: The vast majority of displaced people in the world remain either trapped within their home countries or much closer to home within their regions, often in large refugee camps that are in the global South. When people in the global North think about masses or hordes of people invading their countries, they should understand that the numbers are really tiny compared to what countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan are hosting people in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions.

Well, it’s not directly on the topic of this interview, it’s just important to me when we end up spending a long time talking about the reaction of liberal democracies to arrivals, to emphasize that the vast majority of the burden, if you want to call it that, or the responsibility for assisting displaced people is not taken on by global North countries, it’s taken on and done in the South.

Matt Grossmann: Salehyan says we’ve long feared the current crop of immigrants in the U.S, even though we see immigration as a long story of success.

Idean Salehyan: If you look at the history of immigration to the United States, we have long had two narratives about immigration that operate simultaneously. The first is that we’re a country founded by immigrants. We’re a country that was multicultural from the beginning.

We had obviously people from Great Britain, from Scotland and Ireland, from Italy, from Poland, China, and elsewhere come to the United States and strengthen the fabric of our country. In parallel to that, has been an unease about current immigrants.

A sense that the immigrants that are coming now are not like the immigrants that were coming before. Time and time again in our history we’ve seen that born out as not being true. I mean, there was concern in the 19th century about Catholic immigration, specifically the Irish.

There was concern about integration of Chinese, of Eastern and Southern Europeans. Now the attention has been turned to migrants from Latin America and the middle East. Although I’m confident that with future generations, the United States will be welcoming to those populations as well, and they’ll become every bit as American as anyone else who’ve been here for generations.

We’ve always had this tension between these two conflicting views of immigration to the United States. Where we did have a consensus is that, at least for the subset of migrants that are really fleeing harm, that are fleeing danger to themselves and to their families, that there’s a moral obligation to take the empathetic approach.

Matt Grossmann: Hamlin says Democrats are shifting pro refugee as part of their general moves on immigration, but she sees some risks.

Rebecca Hamlin: I do think we’re seeing this issue become a lot less cross cutting than we had previously understood it to be. I want to be very clear that I don’t think Obama did anything even remotely close to what the Trump administration is doing to make it difficult to seek asylum.

The Obama administration resettled refugees in much, much greater numbers, five times the numbers that the Trump administration is talking about. I think the Obama did it too line is really overblown. I also don’t think that the Obama, Biden approach to immigration will fly with the Democratic party electorate anymore.

It seems like the idea that Obama was the, “Deporter in Chief,” has really taken hold among some portion of the left. I agree with you that the candidates lining up to run against Trump are all seemingly trying to distinguish themselves from Obama on this point.

It’ll be really interesting to see where they take this, because it’s a really tricky issue for them to parse when they cannot be seen as being in favor of open borders, which is what the Republicans like to accuse Democrats of. They have to be really careful to talk about, not open borders, but safe borders, humane borders, investing in real immigration courts, not kangaroo courts.

This stuff gets into the weeds, and I’m not super clear on how well these candidates are doing making those types of distinctions. On your question about whether a Democratic president could undo his legacy? I think a really motivated Democratic president could undo a lot of the most egregious stuff that’s been really harmful to especially families and young children.

It’s just a matter of how aggressive or how up front new administration wants to be on this issue.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Thanks to Rebecca Hamlin and [inaudible 00:51:35] for joining me. Please check out let me be a refugee and the strategic case for refugee resettlement and then listen in next time.

Photo Credit: Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary [Public domain]