The many victims of Trump’s war on refugees

October 25, 2018

Kristen Kelley explains why the White House war of words against the migrant caravan from Central America is part of a larger attack against all asylum seekers.

AS DONALD Trump tours the country demonizing a caravan of thousands of Central American asylum seekers fleeing gang violence, sexual assault and desperate poverty, his administration is translating his hateful campaign rhetoric into coldhearted policy.

Last month, the White House once again reduced the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States — down to just 30,000 people in 2019.

This is a record low since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed — and less than a third of the 110,000 ceiling set during the Obama administration, which raised the cap while simultaneously deporting a historically high number of immigrants. The reduction also coincides with a record high number of displaced people worldwide, estimated at over 68 million.

While the cap has been set at 30,000, there is no guarantee that even that many people will actually be resettled in the U.S. Trump set the refugee cap at 45,000 for 2018, but only 22,491 refugees had been admitted by the end of fiscal year 2018 on September 30.

Thousands of Central American migrants caravan through Mexico
Thousands of Central American migrants caravan through Mexico

Stephen Miller, the White House senior adviser with ties to white supremacists, has been diligently working behind the scenes to undermine refugee resettlement by slowing down overseas Homeland Security interviews with refugees, undercutting staffing at refugee resettlement agencies and making the vetting process more “extreme” — to borrow from one of Trump’s racist talking points.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum cases waiting to be processed as a justification for lowering the refugee cap.

While the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” are often conflated, they are in fact processed in entirely separate systems, and it is deeply problematic when those in positions of power do not understand — or pretend they don’t understand — such basic facts that can be a matter of life or death for those directly affected.

A refugee is a person who has fled their country of origin and is unable to return due to fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. An asylum seeker is a person seeking international protection, often for these same reasons.

The difference is that refugees are recognized by the state as being in need of protection, whereas asylum seekers are still in the process of having their claims recognized. Refugees apply for international protection from overseas and are then resettled, whereas asylum seekers can only apply from within the country in which they wish to stay.

Only 25.4 million out of the 68 million people displaced globally — about 30 percent — have legal recognition as refugees.

In order to be recognized as a refugee, asylum seekers must go through a “credible fear interview,” in which an individual interviewer will determine if the interviewee has legitimate cause to receive refugee status. This interview, vital to a person’s future, usually lasts only 30 minutes to an hour, sometimes by phone — and it is not uncommon for the asylum seeker to not have access to adequate translation.

Once asylum seekers pass this interrogative interview into their past trauma that caused them to flee their homes, they then must move on to a series of additional interviews by the Department of State, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Department of Homeland Security.

At any point during this process, it is possible for asylum seekers to be detained in detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If the asylum seeker’s claims are not determined by the interviewer to be well founded, they face deportation.

As part of its attack on immigrants, the Trump administration has restricted the types of cases that can qualify people for asylum and increased funding to ICE by $200 million — $10 million of which was diverted from FEMA’s budget on the eve of Hurricane Florence — while cutting funding for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

It was already problematic that “economic migrants” who flee poverty and starvation do not qualify for refugee status or international protection — in a world in which U.S. imperialism has helped create a global capitalist market that pushes people off their land and then denies them opportunities to make living wages.

Now the tightening of restrictions on who has access to asylum is leading to even more people being deported back to life-threatening conditions.


WHILE UNDOCUMENTED immigrants were under constant threat during the presidency of Barack Obama — who was nicknamed “deporter-in-chief” by activists — Trump has both campaigned on and implemented a higher level of xenophobia, whipping up particular fear and hatred against refugees.

Only a week after being sworn into office, Trump signed Executive Order 13769 — nicknamed the “Muslim ban.” The executive order was with met immediately airport protests, where thousands of activists and lawyers turned up to demand that travelers be allowed in.

This inspiring resistance pushed the courts into halting much of the original travel ban, but the administration was later able to get a modified but still racist version of the order approved by the judicial system.

The U.S. has only admitted 500 refugees in total from the six countries ultimately affected by the travel ban. This had particularly devastating effects for Syrians fleeing a deadly civil war. In 2018, only 46 Syrians were admitted to the U.S., in comparison to the already too-small 12,587 admitted in 2016. Some 13.5 million are displaced in total because of the conflict.

Since the instatement of the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. had been the global leader in refugee resettlements. Under Trump, the U.S. is now leading the charge in the opposite direction, as countries like Canada and Australia, which have typically taken relatively high numbers of refugees, also decreased their resettlement numbers — though not as drastically as the U.S.

Many countries in Europe are also implementing stricter restrictions with the rise of xenophobic parties across the continent, creating a humanitarian crisis in which human rights are clearly being violated and ignored.

Meanwhile, the total number of refugees in Europe and North America doesn’t come close to the numbers being hosted in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan. Lebanon has over a million Syrian refugees — a fifth of the total population — but refuses to grant asylum or refugee status at all, leaving these refugees vulnerable and without rights or protection.

International law requires countries to provide asylum to those who need it, but according to the UN Refugee Agency, less than 1 percent of refugees were resettled in 2017.

This crisis will only get worse, as more people are displaced by economic and political destabilization, as well as the natural disasters, droughts and food shortages caused by climate change.

If an adequate system to quickly and effectively resettle mass numbers of refugees is not implemented, there will be a humanitarian crisis even more devastating than what we already see today.

As part of the fight for refugee rights, we also need to address the core issue: It’s inherent to capitalism to forcefully displace people. We have to fight for a socialist world where all people are treated as equal, regardless of where they are from — and where we are entirely free to move from one country to another because we want to, not because we have to.

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