Bill Frelick is the Human Rights Watch Refugee Rights Program director
In suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program, President Donald Trump is turning his back on the very people who are most in need. These are people who have undergone "extreme vetting" to ensure they do not represent a threat to the United States, and also have met the standard in U.S. law of being "refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States."
The fact is, refugees under the existing refugee program who cannot be vetted don't get in. Those who are admitted have been subjected to the most intensive scrutiny of the 181 million visitors and immigrants who enter the United States every year.
If the refugees are not identified directly by U.S. embassies, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) first conducts its own thorough vetting, including its own security screening. Only 1 per cent of refugees are ever resettled worldwide, and those lucky few do not choose their country of resettlement. UNHCR makes that choice. As it knows the stringent U.S. security requirements and priorities, it only refers refugees who it believes meet those criteria.
The decision to admit that person to the United States rests entirely with the U.S. government. Security vetting includes extensive investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies. The refugee undergoes multiple and overlapping interviews and processing hurdles, biometric Interpol checks, as well as medical exams – a process that usually takes about two years. The slightest cause for concern stops the process in its tracks.
No system is 100 per cent free of risk. But Mr. Trump's scare-mongering on refugees is out of all proportion to reality: Of the nearly 800,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, three refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities, and none of them involved plans to mount attacks inside the United States.
President Trump's executive order says that if the U.S. resettlement program resumes after a 120-day suspension, it will be capped at 50,000 admissions this fiscal year – less than half of the current ceiling. Syrians will be excluded indefinitely, and religious minorities will get preference over people fleeing persecution on other grounds, such as race or political opinion. These drastic cuts and inflexible exclusions and preferences would reduce the U.S. refugee program to a shadow of its current self.
The U.S. refugee resettlement program saves lives, and its influence extends well beyond U.S. borders. Through its refugee resettlement and humanitarian aid programs, U.S. leadership enhances global security by supporting countries allied with the United States that are on the front lines of refugee exoduses, like Jordan, Kenya and Thailand. It helps them cope with the burden of so many refugees and convinces them to keep their doors open to people who are in grave danger.
It also demonstrates to the world – including the likes of Islamic State – that the United States has the strength to show compassion over fear. Withdrawing U.S. support for refugees will hurt people who have trusted the United States, destabilize friendly governments, and make the world less safe for everyone – including, ultimately, the United States itself.