Elizabeth Neumann: Trump harmed national security by cutting refugee admissions to US — Biden will admit more

Elizabeth Neumann: Trump harmed national security by cutting refugee admissions to US — Biden will admit more

The United States has all but vacated its status as a beacon for refugees under the failed leadership of the Trump administration.

 Over the last four years, refugee admissions have declined steadily from the 110,000 allowed in 2017. Under the Trump administration’s ceiling for 2021, the U.S. would accept a mere 15,000 refugees in the coming year — about one-twentieth of 1% of the world’s refugees.

Opening our nation to such a small number of refugees betrays our values as a nation of immigrants — values epitomized by the famous poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty that says “Give me your tired your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

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But on top of this, the hostility with which the Trump administration has responded to desperate refugees is bad for America’s national security.

It’s in our national interest for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to follow through on pledges to increase the number of refugees allowed to enter our nation of immigrants.

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The Biden-Harris administration can do this by moving in January to restore and strengthen the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Doing this would effectively reaffirm the longstanding principle that admitting refugees is in our national interest.

As a Republican who previously served as assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security and oversaw enhancements in refugee vetting, I can say with confidence that the Trump administration’s policies on refugees have made Americans less safe.

Refugees are the most vetted population of any immigrant or nonimmigrant visa holders admitted to the United States.

Tigray refugees who fled a conflict in Ethiopia ride a boat on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Tigray refugees who fled a conflict in Ethiopia ride a boat on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

The Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies cloaked in the argument of security are not only devoid of supporting facts, but have caused tremendous damage to America’s reputation and our nation’s security.

Protecting all Americans means addressing the root causes that lead to radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. That starts with reopening our arms to refugees.

According to the United Nations, in 2019 about 75% of forcibly displaced people fled to neighboring countries; 27 percent of them hailed from the least developed countries (Bangladesh, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen).

By opting to accept more refugees, America would be making the world safer from terrorist threats.

Despite housing 13% of the world’s population, the least developed countries together combine for just 1.2% of the global domestic product. The pressure of caring for large displaced populations often overwhelms infrastructure and resources, bringing a risk of destabilizing the host country.

Further, the current global approach to refugees leaves a large number of vulnerable people enduring many years of circumstances that could increase their susceptibility to being radicalized.

More bluntly: Leaving people in perpetual limbo — for, say, a decade or more — risks enabling bad actors to exploit their hopelessness and try to recruit the next generation of extremists and terrorists.

By opting to accept more refugees, America would be making the world safer from terrorist threats.

I explain the importance of admitting more refugees in greater detail in a new report published by the National Immigration Forum titled “Robust Refugee Programs Aid National Security.”

I’ve been encouraged by President-elect Biden’s stated intent to begin increasing the refugee ceiling once again. And there are several ways in which the incoming administration can not only restore but also strengthen the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, preparing us for a safer future.

In order to fulfill Biden’s commendable promise to resettle 125,000 refugees by the end of the current fiscal year, the incoming president and Congress must invest significantly in the infrastructure that allows our refugee program to succeed.

The Refugee Admissions Program has been plagued by a lack of staff, inefficient processes and outdated technologies. The Biden administration will have to work with Congress to quickly invest to correct all three.

The new administration should also consider moving to a multiyear planning approach and setting the refugee ceiling number for the next two to three years, so that the Refugee Admissions Program and domestic and international partners can more strategically plan and build capacity. 

Equally critical, the Biden administration should improve the refugee vetting process by strengthening national security partners and the National Vetting Center, allowing for quicker and thorough background checks. 

Doing this will allow for sunsetting outdated manual security checks, which create significant delays in the processing of refugees.

National Vetting Center operations are dependent on the dedication and contributions of partner agencies and their associated budgets. The Biden administration should send a strong signal that the vetting center is a priority, and agencies should align their personnel, budgets and technology investments accordingly.

The Biden-Harris team should also reengage our allies — many of whom have been sidelined for four years — to address the growing number of refugees around the world.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Global Compact on Migration in 2017, as well as the Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, has unfortunately compounded America’s national security challenges.

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President-elect Biden should return to the table to discuss how to support larger numbers of forcibly displaced people, including by prioritizing help for those seeking asylum from the least developed countries.

The Biden administration should also collaborate with partners like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to address challenges within the Western Hemisphere and update our resettlement strategy accordingly.

As president, Joe Biden will have an opportunity to lay the foundation for future national security benefits by admitting more refugees, making America safer not just now but over the long term.

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The United States, of course, cannot resolve the world’s growing refugee crisis on its own. But turning our backs and ignoring the growing crisis — as the Trump administration has done — will only create a more dangerous world.

It is my sincere hope the incoming administration — with backing from Democrats and Republicans in Congress — will not only restore but strengthen our refugee program, keeping all Americans safer in turn.

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