Trump sacrifices refugees on the altar of white anxiety

Stephen Miller (screengrab)
Stephen Miller (screengrab)

While your gaze may have been diverted elsewhere, Donald Trump on Monday took another major step toward extinguishing America’s reputation as an international beacon of hope and a place of refuge for people seeking to be free.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new cap on the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States next year — 30,000 at an absolute maximum, a cut upon a cut, and an increasingly tiny fraction of a percentage point of the almost 69 million displaced people in the world today.

Major news organizations reported the move pretty straight — leaving the heartbreaking context to reaction quotes from immigration groups. They should have called it what it is: An act of astonishing, shameful cruelty, in the all-but-spoken-out-loud name of white nationalism.

There is no practical reason that the U.S. couldn’t handle many more refugees. The only reasons left, then, are racism – to slow the entry of non-white people into the country – and the politics of division.

The lowered cap is widely recognized as the work of Stephen Miller, the president’s particularly black-hearted senior policy advisor, who opposes not just undocumented immigration but immigration, period.

Miller has a enthusisastic audience in Trump. Miller reportedly wanted the cap lowered to 25,000; Trump at one point countered by suggesting 5,000. The final cap of 30,000 is down from 50,000 this year and 85,000 in the last year of the Obama presidency, although actual admissions were considerably lower.

Miller experienced a setback earlier this year when his “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy led to thousands of family separations, public outrage and a court-order retreat. But Miller moved on undaunted, evidently recognizing that pictures of brown people quietly suffering in the refugee camps and being turned down for entry are not as likely to capture the public imagination as those of children being snatched away from their mothers by people wearing U.S. government uniforms.

The new initiative is at least as effective in catering to the “white anxiety” preached by Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

As Mehdi Hasan writes in the Intercept, racial and cultural anxiety is what won Trump the 2016 election. And it’s what he’s counting on going forward.

But consider the sheer inhumanity of this particular decision, which Anne Richard, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, described to Politico as the result of “a numbers game that’s being carried out by people who don’t care about refugees and are orienting this to their base.”

Depending on how you look at those numbers, they mean such different things. The marginal difference to the U.S. of accepting refugees is about nil. The marginal difference to a refugee is a future, or none.

Sen. Patrick Leahy issued an impassioned statement after Pompeo’s announcement, worth reproducing in its entirety:

In so many ways, this White House has shown a particular contempt for the world’s most vulnerable people seeking refuge from persecution and war.  What previous Republican and Democratic administrations believed was a moral responsibility – and a way to demonstrate that unmatched American power is derived in part from how we treat the powerless among us – the Trump administration shamelessly treats as a burden to be callously discarded.

As disheartening as this abdication of leadership is, spearheaded by the architects of the morally abhorrent family separation policy, this too will pass.  Our values and traditions are too deeply embedded in our national conscience to be abandoned so casually.  They will outlast this president.

It is now up to Congress, and the American people, to reaffirm what this Nation stands for. Which is that America will be – and always has been, at its core – a welcoming refuge for those seeking to be free.


particularly moving statement came from Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees – and that helped my immigrant father get legal status here in the late 1940s:

President Trump has once again betrayed America’s history and global leadership in providing safe haven for innocent human beings fleeing violence and persecution…

By setting the refugee number this low, this administration is betraying the commitments we made after World War II – followed by decades of bipartisan support – to ensure that the world never again turns its back on innocent people seeking safety. During a period of unprecedented crisis, America has signaled it is a nation in retreat, and as a result the outlook for refugees looks even more bleak.

A nation in retreat, indeed.

Pompeo’s announcement was defensive. “Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world. This would be wrong,” he insisted.

And, as Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote in very effective debunking in the New York Times, it was also highly inaccurate.

Mr. Pompeo said refugees had to be weighed against a backlog of 800,000 asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision by immigration authorities about whether they qualify as in need of protection under United States law and will be granted status to remain.

But he vastly overstated the numbers, while making a linkage between two groups of immigrants that are not the same and are processed differently.

Specifically, about 730,000 immigrants  are waiting for their cases to be resolved by immigration courts. That doesn’t make the refugees or asylum seekers.

The use of refugees as a political football is classic Trump – and also specific to Trump, rupturing a decades-old bipartisan consensus. Consider this letter signed by an all-start list of foreign policy Mandarins from both parties in September 2016. It said in part:

As we ensure the safety of our own citizens, we should recognize that refugees serve as a source of national renewal. Fleeing horrors today, they will tomorrow emerge as patriotic citizens who give back to the country that welcomed them in their time of desperation. And accepting refugees demonstrates, at a time when it is so sorely needed, that America leads the world in marching toward a better future.


Leave a Comment