Donald Trump

Trump Set to Become the Stingiest Refugee President of the Modern Era

As worldwide refugee populations peak, the American president slashes numerical targets toward historic lows. Meanwhile, conservative apologists call his stance 'moderate.'


If you consume your politics on Twitter, I am confident you have seen over the past five days such sentiments as this:

Sure, sure, the most powerful politician in the world may have broken a few eggs here and there, but did you see those rude reviews on Yelp???

National Review, unsurprisingly, has sounded some similar notes since Trump's executive order on refugees last Friday:

Note the word "but" there instead of "and," and that the only party drawing the pejorative is the critics, not the administration choosing to gratuitously disrupt the lives of up to a half-million vetted legal permanent U.S. residents (before reversing that part of the poorly drafted order, even while insisting that "all is going well with very few problems"). The subhed of the linked NRO piece, which was written by Dan McLaughlin, is: "The anger at his new policy is seriously misplaced." The erroneous first sentence within suggests one way of arriving at such a conclusion:

President Trump has ordered a temporary, 120-day halt to admitting refugees from seven countries, all of them war-torn states with majority-Muslim populations: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia.

No, the refugee ban is for everyone—Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, natural disaster victim, genocide target, seven-nation disfavorable, 180+-country undesirable, whatever: Shop's closed until Memorial Day. And the seven-country ban, which is for 90 days and not 120, includes everybody from those regions (except those with diplomatic passports), not just the subset of refugees. Since many people seem to be making the same mistake, here is the plain language from the order: "The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days." The program that has since 1980 admitted an average of 200+ refugees per day into the United States has been abruptly slammed shut for the next four months, and will be reopened at the discretion of a president who campaigned not only on a "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," but also the deportation of Syrian refugees already living legally in America. You can see why some people might not be inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this.

Which brings us to the National Review's David French, who, in a widely cited piece over the weekend, decided that the mock-worthy hysteria about the executive order came not from a power-wielding president with a long track record of misleading statements and alarmist hyperbole about the existing refugee-screening process, but rather among the people who are standing athwart Trump's draconian order yelling "stop." French, you may recall, had been for a few weird moments last spring Bill Kristol's great #NeverTrump hope, so he is hardly a reflexive supporter of the president. Judging by the intensity of the retweets on this piece, his views reflect a broad swath of modern conservatism.

So: In a piece that advertises itself as "Separating Fact from Hysteria," French characterizes Trump's move as "an executive order dominated mainly by moderate refugee restrictions." Not only does a blanket, never-been-done-before four-month refugee-stoppage—and an equally historic three-month ban of all travel from seven other countries—constitute a "moderate" move by French's lights, so does Trump's slashing of the U.S. target for refugee admittance to 50,000 a year, which is less than half of the 110,000 target Barack Obama set for this year, and also well below the 70,000-80,000 goal set every year from 2001-2015.

French has an awfully dissonant way of selling this virtuous moderation. In one breath, he says it's no big deal because Trump's target number is similar to the actual levels of refugee admittance under George W. Bush. In the next, he bitterly excoriates Barack Obama for not taking in more Syrian refugees:

The bottom line is that Trump is improving security screening and intends to admit refugees at close to the average rate of the 15 years before Obama's dramatic expansion in 2016. Obama's expansion was a departure from recent norms, not Trump's contraction. […]

To recap: While the Syrian Civil War was raging, ISIS was rising, and refugees were swamping Syria's neighbors and surging into Europe, the Obama administration let in less than a trickle of refugees. Only in the closing days of his administration did President Obama reverse course — in numbers insufficient to make a dent in the overall crisis, by the way — and now the Democrats have the audacity to tweet out pictures of bleeding Syrian children? […]

There was a genocide on Obama's watch, and his tiny trickle of Syrian refugees hardly makes up for the grotesque negligence of abandoning Iraq and his years-long mishandling of the emerging Syrian crisis.

I won't take a back seat in criticizing Obama for not accepting more Syrian refugees—indeed, his secretary of state, John Kerry, had the morally obscene gall to bring up the rebuffed 1939 ship MS St. Louis as a reason to bomb Syria in 2013, at a time when the U.S. had taken in fewer than 100 refugees. But it is also true that the vetting period for refugees averages around two years, and the Syrian civil war started in 2011. French is outraged that Obama's Syrian-refugee count only crossed the four-digit threshold in 2015, as am I, but surely some of that has to do with the slow pace of screening. Unless the Trumpian "extreme vetting" translates to "extremely fast" (which seems less than likely), the new screening strictures will probably take even longer than that.

Yet French absolves Trump for his outright indefinite ban, writing "it is not necessary to bring Syrians to the United States to fulfill our vital moral obligations." And then when slamming Obama two paragraphs later, he laments, "Sadly, during the Obama administration it seems that Christians and other minorities may well have ended up in the back of the line." Who knew that having no line at all was better than having one that underrepresents Christians?

French has some to-be-sures in there, about green-card holders and U.S.-friendly interpreters and the like. But he establishes as the baseline for normalcy the 2001-2015 period of George W. Bush and Barack Obama:

Before 2016, when Obama dramatically ramped up refugee admissions, Trump's 50,000 stands roughly in between a typical year of refugee admissions in George W. Bush's two terms and a typical year in Obama's two terms.

This is not strictly accurate—pre-2016 Obama averaged 67,000 refugees a year, while 2001-2008 Bush brought in 48,000. But far more importantly, it leaves off the other presidents in the modern era, who each make Obama look like a piker: 82,000 a year for Ronald Reagan, 89,000 for Bill Clinton, 94,000 for Jimmy Carter, and an average of 119,000 refugees per year under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. French tries to paint 50,000 as some kind of reversion to the mean, but Washington has been that niggardly just four times since the fall of the Shah.

An even more puzzling omission from a piece that attempts to calm the political waters with the soothing coo of statistics is the global refugee context in which these changes are being made. In fact, Trump is ratcheting down admittance numbers precisely at a time when the global population of refugees is spiking like never before. Here's a piece last June from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:

Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began, according to a new report released today by the UN Refugee Agency.

The report, entitled Global Trends, noted that on average 24 people were forced to flee each minute in 2015, four times more than a decade earlier, when six people fled every 60 seconds.

Between 2008-2012, according to the UNHCR, the global population of refugees was stable, at between 10.4 and 10.6 million. But then:

2013: 11.7 million

2014: 14.4 million

2015: 16.1 million

That 2015 figure was the highest since 1993, and the fifth-highest since 1975 (which marks the beginning of the modern era of U.S. refugee policy). The figures for 2016 aren't in yet, but there's every reason to believe that the sharp recent increase will continue.

It is against this backdrop that President Trump is blocking all refugees for at least four months, and slashing American targets down to levels rarely seen. When George W. Bush accepted 27,000 and 28,000 refugees in 2002 and 2003, respectively, the worldwide refugee count was 10.6 million and 9.6 million, making the percentage American haul 0.25 percent and 0.29 percent, far and away the lowest annual shares in four decades. If the refugee population this year somehow remains at its 2015 level of 16.1 million—and there's no reason to think it will be that low—Trump's 50,000 target would amount to 0.31 percent. It is entirely conceivable that Trump's presidency will accept refugees at George W. Bush's historically low raw average, at a time when the worldwide population of refugees is twice as high.

The last time the global refugee policy spiked so sharply in four years was from 1979-1982, when it increased from 6.3 million to 10.3 million. What did the U.S. do then, under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?

1979: 111,000 refugees accepted (1.77 percent of the global population)

1980: 207,000 (2.5%)

1981: 159,000 (1.64%)

1982: 98,000 (0.95%)

You can choose to defend the executive order on any number of grounds (most of them contestable, in my view). But calling it "moderate" isn't a truth-telling act of puncturing lefty/media hyperbole, it's obfuscatory euphemism to make the medicine go down smoother. This is your long-nurtured restrictionism translated into action, conservatives. Might as well own it.