Immigration and Society

The US Cannot Hit the Pause Button on Accepting Refugees

January 27, 2017  • Jonathon Price

Just four months after the US celebrated accepting 10,000 Syrian immigrants ahead of schedule last fiscal year, President Trump signed an executive order to suspend the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and suspend indefinitely any refugee migration from Syria.

This order has far-reaching implications. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 21.3 million refugees in the world. In Syria alone, 13.5 million people have been displaced by the long-running war within its borders. These 120 days could make all the difference for these families’ livelihoods and prospects.

Of course, the US should properly screen any who enter our borders, just as other nations do. And in fact, we do. Refugees receive intense screening before being resettled here, often waiting years for the process which includes reviews by the UNHCR, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security.  Each refugee must undergo an extensive in-person interview with a US Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. Syrian applicants undergo an even more enhanced review process. A detailed list of all the steps refugees must undergo is available on the DHS site.

Though some will point out that the suspension is merely a delay, and not a full halt, it is important to consider what might happen during those 120 days. To start, countries could use this executive order as an excuse to seal their own borders and seek to shift responsibility. The European Union Commission has already recommended that Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway extend border checks for an additional three months. Meanwhile, Syrian and other refugees see a finish line constantly being moved.

Today America and the West risk no longer being viewed as the promised sanctuary for the “masses yearning to breathe free.”

The refugee crisis is not resolved by executive action. Even if we temporarily halt the flow of migration, the overall buildup of refugees will continue so long as strife continues to displace people.  As the Aspen Ministers Forum has recommended, it is time to adopt a long-term lens for this crisis. Beyond the crisis in Syria, some countries in the Middle East and North Africa exist on the precipice of civil war or instability, and in others minority groups face persecution. Outside the region, impacts from climate change may create new migration patterns as people flee water shortages or devastating floods.

Long-term, predictable, and global funding streams would help. But even more than that, having a safe place for those who are truly persecuted or facing imminent death or harm in their native countries is vital. The US has long been a beacon of hope for displaced people. And it has a successful track record, having resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975.  According to the State Department, the US admits nearly two-thirds of all refugee resettlement referrals, making it the largest refugee resettlement country in the world.

Today America and the West risk no longer being viewed as the promised sanctuary for the “masses yearning to breathe free” as so eloquently inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, but rather a land of false promises and dashed hopes. We cannot delay — not for 120 days, not even for one day — making sure we protect as many of these vulnerable people as possible. The stakes for them are just too high.