In the first week since his inauguration, Donald Trump has signed several executive orders. According to various reports, the next executive order suspending the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program for four months will be signed as early as this afternoon. Signing this order on January 27—the Holocaust Remembrance Day—is indeed cruelly ironic. In 1939, the United States turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 passengers—mainly Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of Nazi Germany—after it was first turned away from Havana, Cuba. Are we about to turn away thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
Mr. Trump–it’s hard to call him Mr. President (#notmypresident)–does not seem to understand the ramifications of the executive order he is about to sign. Coupled with an additional ban on issuing visas to nationals from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, these orders will undermine America’s position as one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement countries. They will also affect thousands of Iraqi interpreters and soldiers that served alongside U.S. troops who have applied for visas to come to the United States. As of June 2016, 800 applications for the Special Immigrant Visa were submitted by Iraqi interpreters and their families.
I wonder if Mr. Trump has put any thought into what the suspension of the resettlement program will do to the resettlement regime. The refugee resettlement program was one of the biggest casualties of 9/11. Within days, the refugee resettlement program that had brought some 2.5 million refugees to the United States since 1975 was shut down. Three years later, the program was still running at only about two-thirds of its previous capacity and it took several years to bring it back to the 70,000 admission levels.The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) kept the program going and continued to fund their partners because they understood that the resettlement system had to be operational to serve refugees once they were allowed to come to this country again. Will ORR be able to do the same this time? The agency is stretched to maximum serving refugees, unaccompanied children and youth, torture survivors, and victims of human trafficking. We have to keep it going!
I know how important the work of ORR is. I worked there during the Clinton administration. I know how much refugees appreciate the assistance programs ORR funds and how much refugee community members and leaders value the partnership with the agency. I also know how important it is to maintain the premiere refugee resettlement system. I am a refugee. I fled my native Poland in 1984, shortly after martial law ended, but persecution of scholars and college professors continued. I know that this division of society into “Them” and “Us” is dangerous. It breeds hatred and misery. Let’s remember that on the Day of Remembrance.