THE NEWS REPORT sickens. A Salvadoran mother, beaten by a gang in front of her two children, flees to save them. When she seeks asylum at the US border, immigration authorities take both children from her — even though she is following established procedure. Why? To discourage the immiserated from seeking refuge in America.
Our cruelty proliferates. In recent months, we have separated roughly 700 families, consigning children to an uncertain fate. Studies confirm the obvious — this practice is traumatic, potentially affecting the child’s brain architecture and overall health. Attorney General Jeff Sessions insists these families “have to” be punished because of their “reckless and improper behavior.” Yet the only “crime” committed by the Salvadoran mother was to entrust her children to America’s beneficence.
What have we become? Since the Holocaust, America has led the world in sheltering refugees from violence and oppression. But President Trump’s America is a different country.
This is tragic. According to the United Nations, cataclysms around the globe have displaced 65 million people — the most catastrophic mass displacement since World War II. About 22.5 million have fled their homeland: one-third from Syria’s slaughterhouse; others from places like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Central America. More than half are under 18; 75,000 are children without adults.
Worldwide, fewer than 1 percent of refugees are granted permanent asylum every year — roughly 125,000. The nearest potential hosts — Europe and the Middle East — won’t, or can’t, process many new entrants. The United States can – and, historically, has. In 2016, Barack Obama’s final year as president, this country resettled nearly 85,000 refugees.
Unsurprisingly, they come from the most horrific wellsprings of displacement — principally Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Traditionally, our resettlement program has prioritized the most vulnerable — including children.
Under Trump their demographics are of political — not moral — significance. Many are people of color; in 2016, the United States admitted more Muslims than Christians. For 2017, the Obama administration proposed increasing their numbers to 110,000. Candidate Trump turned this relative trickle into a torrent of would-be terrorists and criminals — including, in his telling, a flood of Syrians who “may be ISIS.”
But the vetting process for refugees is not, as he claimed, “extremely open” but stringent and time-consuming — the worst way to immigrate. Applicants were not inventing the horrors they fled, there for the world to see. Yet all were required individually to establish that they feared persecution or death “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Since 1980, no refugee admitted through this program has committed an act of terrorism. Trump’s claims notwithstanding, the United States has resettled but 18,000 Syrians. On this subject, as others, he lied his way into office.
Once there, he barred entrants from some of the world’s cruelest places — Syria, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Venezuela, Yemen, Chad, and Iran. He followed by slashing total refugee admissions from 110,000 to 45,000. Ignoring the absence of terrorism by refugees, he proclaimed: “We will never forget the lessons of 9/11.”
With equal cynicism, he claimed that vetting refugees was too costly, ignoring a report by the Department of Health and Human Services that resettling refugees produced a net economic benefit. It was cheaper and more effective, he asserted, to help displaced persons where they are. Even were Trump not slashing humanitarian aid, this is a heartless joke in places like Syria, where the regime survives through killing its own people en masse.
In April, announcing a strike on Syrian military installations, Trump cited the use of chemical weapons on “mothers and fathers, infants and children.” When he spoke, the United States had admitted just 11 Syrian refugees this year. Yet Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress, “I’ve seen refugees from Asia to Europe, Kosovo to Africa. I’ve never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria.”
In a crowning irony — despite Trump’s promise to aid persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East — his administration denied asylum to over 100 Iranian Christians facing persecution. But Trump beat his goal: In 2017, America resettled under 30,000 refugees. Now, The New York Times reports, Trump has cut the staff that interviews applicants overseas, slashing estimated admissions to 20,000 in 2018 — the lowest since the program began in 1980.
What damage is he doing, one wonders, to others — and to us. A Globe piece by teacher Jessica Lander described Po, a traumatized 14-year-old from Myanmar granted asylum. Now in college, Po hopes to become a teacher, helping other young refugees thrive in her adopted country.
How many Pos will Trump protect us from?
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.