As the ninety day window on his previous executive order restricting immigration from predominantly Muslim countries came to a close, President Trump issued a new set of restrictions on September 25th with the “Presidential Proclamation Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats.” In a separate, but related move, a couple of days later, the White House announced it was drastically cutting refugee admissions to 45,000 for 2018, slashing by more than 50 percent the ceiling set by former President Obama for 2016. The new ceiling is the lowest level since 2006 for the United States, long celebrated as a nation of immigrants.
As I have previously noted, these restrictions have a particularly adverse effect on women refugees. More than 72 percent of refugees resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2016 were women and children, according to the State Department. Women often flee gender-based crimes, including crimes of sexual violence, and female refugees stuck in resettlement camps are at high risk of sexual and physical violence, as well as trafficking, forced marriage, and other forms of exploitation. According to the United Nations, an estimated twenty percent of women in conflict zones or areas affected by a natural disaster have experienced sexual violence at some point and face an increased risk of preventable death during childbirth.
An original travel ban as well as a revised ban faced numerous legal challenges and adverse rulings from federal courts on a range of grounds, including the fact that both versions of the ban appeared to single out predominantly Muslim countries. For example, Federal District Court Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii ruled that “A reasonable, objective observer ... would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion.” However, in a per curiam order, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted parts of the revised ban to go into effect for those travelers unable to prove a “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States”—pending fuller consideration of the ban on the merits—ensuring that the ban would remain in effect until September 24th, when the administration’s review period (established to study immigration from various countries) would end.
The new proclamation both alters and expands the scope of the last order, first by turning the previous 90 day review period into an indefinite suspension, but also by adjusting the six countries to a new group of eight: Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Somalia, Chad, Venezuela, and Yemen (the latter three of which were not included in the earlier bans).
At first blush, the inclusion of Venezuela and North Korea in the proclamation seemed odd, since the net migration rate from North Korea is nearly zero and the Venezuelan portion only bans certain government officials. Such stark contrasts have prompted some observers to speculate that the inclusion of these countries represents a veiled attempt to dodge criticism of the proclamation as a new Muslim ban, a critique that plagued both of its predecessors.
Refugees, who faced significant hardship as a result of the earlier executive orders (which directed the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to suspend all applications for asylum for 120 days), remain at a disadvantage under the new set of policies, which will not return to admissions levels permitted under Barack Obama. President Trump’s administration used the earlier orders to slash the United States’ number of refugee admissions for 2017 to 50,000—which had already been reached as of July—down from the Obama goal of 110,000 for last year. Now, the new order will further shrink that number in 2018 to 45,000, according to a report it recently submitted to Congress.
The President explained his rationale during his recent UN speech, in which he alleged that, “For the cost of resettling one refugee in the U.S., we can assist more than 10 in their home region.” Yet, a National Bureau of Economic Research study found that refugees on average pay $21,000 more in taxes than they are provided in benefits over their first two decades of resettlement.
The draconian refugee admissions cap is troubling news for Syrians, who make up nearly a quarter of the worlds’ refugees, and who—in many cases—are unable to return home as they continue to flee a brutal civil war that has already claimed nearly five hundred thousand lives. Many refugees will now remain in camps, or attempt to make the dangerous crossing into safer regions.
Reneging on American commitments to accept refugees will consign more women asylum seekers to the reality of life in increasingly overcrowded camps or press women to make dangerous journeys to areas of safe haven such as in neighboring states or the European Union (which harshly condemned the previous bans). For those faced with those choices, especially women, the future is ominous.