As the Trump administration reduces the number of refugees allowed into the United States every year, it’s important to remember that this is a dangerous aberration from the policies of previous administrations. The U.S. refugee resettlement program used to enjoy strong support from both parties–and for good reason. Refugee resettlement is an important humanitarian program that promotes America’s strategic interests as well. Advancing the national interest and ensuring robust refugee protection are mutually reinforcing — not exclusive — goals. The U.S. refugee resettlement system benefits America’s worldwide interests and helps carry out foreign-policy objectives, according to people who have held the highest-level intelligence and security positions within the government.
The support of bipartisan national-security experts for refugee resettlement should give critics pause. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote in 2017 that “cutting refugee admittances would not only be a moral failure but also damage our national interest abroad.” Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis wrote in 2016, “It’s ironic, to say the least, that today some politicians are seeking to shut out refugees in the name of national security.”
Officials and experts have explained that resettling refugees advances U.S. strategic interests in four major ways: it aids in the recruitment of intelligence assets abroad, increases U.S. global influence, undermines anti-Western propaganda, and promotes stability in foreign countries.
Refugee Resettlement Benefits America’s Worldwide Interests By Aiding in the Recruitment of Local Assistance and Intelligence Assets
Writing for the Washington Post, Secretary Chertoff argued that “maintaining [refugee] resettlement commitments is critical to our military, diplomatic, and intelligence operations abroad.” He pointed to the tens of thousands of locals in Iraq and Afghanistan who “put their lives on the line to support intelligence-gathering, operations planning and other essential services” to help American operations.
Successful recruitment of locals to assist American operations abroad turns on the promise of safety in the United States for themselves and their families. Without resettlement opportunities, encouraging locals to provide their help and expertise is significantly more difficult. For example, cooperation and intelligence from those escaping ISIS or those who have lived in ISIS-run territory — like Syrian refugees — provides precious information that can help us defeat our shared enemy.
General Hayden explained that “human sources are essential to defeating threats to the U.S.” and that restrictionism affects the ability of our military and foreign diplomats to reach out to local partners.
Our refugee program has a long tradition of being tied to U.S. diplomatic efforts abroad. During the Cold War, resettling refugees from communist countries allowed the United States to showcase the superiority of democracy and helped undermine and humiliate oppressive regimes and the extremist ideologies of communism and totalitarianism. In fact, refugee advocates have historically criticized the United States for placing too much emphasis on promoting national security through the refugee program, and not enough on humanitarian goals, making current claims that the program serves no national interest all the more curious.
Strong humanitarian programs undermine terrorist propaganda about the west
Terrorists use Internet videos to paint the United States as evil; they use narratives of America hating and oppressing Muslims to recruit stateside terrorists, and to encourage radical action. By closing our doors to Syrian refugees, we are, to use Secretary Chertoff’s words, “giving propaganda to the enemy” and “playing into the narrative of the bad guy.” General Hayden and Admiral Stavridis agreed, writing that accepting refugees, “regardless of their religion, nationality, or race, exposes the falseness of terrorist propaganda and counters the warped vision of extremists.”
The travel ban and the vilification of refugees, particularly Muslims, feeds into the exact narrative ISIS seeks to promulgate. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a statement after the first travel ban saying:
“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism[…]. Our most important allies in the fight against [ISIS] are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
ISIS labels refugees as traitors, and the United States should be in the business of creating as many ISIS traitors as possible. Muslim refugees who reject ISIS should always be welcomed in America, where they can become the new ambassadors of freedom and democracy around the world. When they flee terror, the mighty United States is ready to give them liberty — that should be the message of our refugee program.
Supporting and welcoming those who reject ideologies antithetical to U.S. values is important in the fight against extremism. Chertoff argued that by taking in those fleeing communist uprisings, religious persecution, and tyranny in the past, by welcoming the enemies of our enemies, we manifested our commitment to our ideals and the fight against extremism.
Stable Countries are Safe Countries
The United States can act as a safety valve to release pressure in areas of concern by helping our allies integrate refugees and helping front-line states provide for asylum seekers. Not only does this mitigate potential destabilization, but it helps us maintain alliances and cultivate good relationships with other nations. For example, Jordan, a U.S. ally, has received millions of asylum seekers and strained to handle the influx in recent years. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria, has argued the U.S. can help “relieve the strain” from large refugee flows, which could otherwise trigger violence and impact U.S. allies and national-security interests.
The State Department has identified instances where targeted U.S. refugee resettlement has benefited American national interests by minimizing tensions. A department report explains how “in certain locations, the prompt resettlement of politically sensitive cases has helped defuse regional tensions,” which meets U.S. goals. Secretary Chertoff believes the United States has a role to play in instances like this when U.S. troops are deployed nearby and their safety is in question.
Twenty national-security leaders from across the political spectrum, including former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger; former CIA Director David Petraeus; former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (herself a refugee); and former Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, wrote in 2015 that “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national-security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.”
Refugee Resettlement Leadership Increases U.S. Global Influence
Secretary Chertoff poignantly posed the question: “If we’re not willing to do our fair share [to help refugees], how can we ask front-line allies to do more?” American acceptance of refugees improves our negotiating position and ability to wield influence abroad. While it is often used to push other countries to launch or expand their own humanitarian programs, it has also been used to promote other foreign-policy goals. American influence depends on credibility, trust, and leading by example, all of which are aided by a robust resettlement program.
In its report to Congress in September 2016, the State Department explained that the United States has used its leadership position in refugee resettlement to “promote and secure other durable solutions for refugees” and “advance foreign-policy objectives.” By showing we have “skin in the game” and continuing robust refugee resettlement practices, we can strongly encourage other nations to increase total resettlement, contribute more funding to operational nongovernmental organizations and aid groups, and work to better care for displaced persons.
Resettlement trends in recent years illustrate this well. The International Rescue Committee finds that “the U.S. retreat from resettlement in 2017 prompted a nearly 60 percent decline in global resettlement by June 2017.”
This type of leadership is particularly impactful in the context of the Syrian crisis. The State Department explains that “a number of other countries without regular resettlement programs have also stepped forward to admit Syrians through humanitarian admissions programs” due to U.S. efforts to convince more nations to resettle refugees. The State Department continues that American resettlement efforts in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia helped “energize efforts” by the United Nations to ensure refugee and asylum protections for large populations.
This political capital allows us to push other governments to take similar measures, even outside of refugee resettlement. If the United States doesn’t resettle refugees, slashes resettlement totals, contributes less funding to crucial groups and organizations, or leaves international agreements, America leaves an absence of leadership and a vacuum in its place.
The humanitarian case for resettlement is strong, but sometimes the strategic case is underemphasized, unnecessarily forfeiting the debate about refugees when opponents aren’t moved by altruism. Refugee resettlement benefits Americans and immigrants worldwide, so it’s a project of both compassion and strategy, providing a better life to dispossessed people while also accomplishing self-interested foreign-policy goals. It’s not a tradeoff — it’s a win-win proposition.
As Secretary Chertoff wrote: “Our values and our national-security interests argue for raising our refugee ceiling, not lowering it. The president should seize the mantle of Reagan and fortify U.S. leadership on refugees.”
Refugee protection and advancing the national interest are reinforcing ends. American soft power abroad is bolstered by our refugee resettlement operations. The United States is invested in regional and global stability, and refugee resettlement is one effective tool we have in achieving those ends. None of this denies that there are challenges and tradeoffs in refugee policy, but there is not one that pits broad humanitarianism against the broad national interest. Refugee resettlement benefits the American people, the U.S. economy, refugees themselves, and the international community.