In ordinary times, my colleagues and I sit at our desks in places like Malaysia, Turkey and Nauru. Across from us, three feet away, sits an applicant for asylum — sometimes alone, sometimes with a spouse or children. Some have waited decades for this moment. We review their files — filled with detailed accounts of their lives, biometric data, family histories and more — and listen to their testimonies. They are the luckiest of the most vulnerable, because after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees referred them for resettlement in the United States, they were granted this interview.
With the added danger of the coronavirus, and the Trump administration seizing the opportunity to impose even more restrictions, my colleagues and I fear that we won’t get to return to those desks — and that America has abandoned its promise to protect the world’s most vulnerable.
Across the previous five presidencies, three Republican and two Democratic, the United States has admitted more refugees than the rest of the world combined. Of the 4 million refugees resettled worldwide since 1980, we took in 3 million. These were people who had a well-founded fear of persecution or death in their home countries on account of a characteristic like race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and whose governments were unable or unwilling to protect them.
That all changed beginning in January 2017. One of President Trump’s very first acts in office was to
issue Executive Order No. 13769, often called the “travel ban.” It suspended the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, drastically lowered the admissions quota and barred all individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries, including an indefinite ban on Syrian nationals. It unleashed extreme vetting measures, causing massive delays for thousands of vulnerable people in the refugee pipeline.
In 2019, the administration set the next fiscal year’s annual refugee quota at a historic low of 18,000 — down from 30,000 the previous year and 110,000 in the previous administration. The actual admissions numbers have been far lower. “
In closing Mr. Marks says,
Amid all this, in June, the administration proposed 161 pages of sweeping regulations that would gut asylum and refugee law. Certain provisions, for example, drastically narrow the definitions of persecution and torture; others raise certain burdens of proof to nearly unreachable standards and redefine what constitutes the protected grounds of political opinion and membership in a particular social group.
In the closing words of his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan described our country as a “shining city upon a hill”: “If there had to be city walls,” he said in 1989, “the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” That is still something most Americans believe in.