White House Weighs Taking Refugee Programs Away From State Department

Mike Pompeo’s first test could be a plan to remove refugee aid from Foggy Bottom.

By Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump attends the ceremonial swearing-in of  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on May 2, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump attends the ceremonial swearing-in of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on May 2, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is considering shifting migration programs worth billions of dollars out of the U.S. State Department to another government agency, a move that would signal a historic shift in how refugees are handled, according to current and former officials.

The idea was floated last year, but former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fended off the move after humanitarian organizations, diplomats, and lawmakers from both parties argued against the change. After Tillerson’s firing in March, however, the proposal is back on the table.

At issue is the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, which manages a budget of roughly $3.4 billion. The bureau, which oversees the U.S. government’s refugee program, is a critical tool of American diplomacy, according to current and former officials.

Opponents of the move argue that shifting the bureau out of Foggy Bottom would undermine America’s international influence and reinforce a perception abroad that the United States no longer places a priority on helping refugees fleeing war or persecution.

The internal debate over who should oversee the country’s refugee program comes as aid groups and lawmakers blasted the Trump administration’s admissions policy, accusing the White House of abandoning America’s moral and diplomatic leadership while the world faces the worst refugee crisis in history.

If current trends hold, in fiscal year 2018 the United States is poised to accept the lowest number of refugees since 1980 — roughly 20,000 to 23,000, according to aid groups. That number is far lower than the White House-set 45,000 maximum, a drastic reduction compared to the historic average.

The proposal could also be a key test of the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his influence with the president. Pompeo has repeatedly vowed to shore up morale and restore “swagger” to the beleaguered diplomatic corps, which felt marginalized during his predecessor’s tenure.

Pompeo has made no final decision on the issue, but former diplomats say he would be giving up significant funding for his department and an important diplomatic tool if he agreed to the proposed reorganization.

Officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) favor transferring the overseas humanitarian assistance programs out of the State Department bureau to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which handles other relief programs. USAID is supposed to follow the secretary of state’s overall guidance on foreign policy, but it operates as an independent agency and often has turf battles with Foggy Bottom.

Both OMB and USAID officials contend the shift would produce a more effective and cost-efficient approach, and that the current system allows for duplication or confusing outcomes.

As an example, they cite the crisis in Myanmar, where USAID delivers assistance to Rohingya families displaced inside the country while the State Department provides aid to Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh.

But an independent study commissioned last year by the State Department assessed the effect of a possible reorganization of the bureau and concluded that such a move would not save money, a source familiar with the study tells Foreign Policy. OMB officials, however, are not convinced and want to commission an entirely new study to assess the financial impact of reorganizing the bureau, the source says.

The OMB declined to comment for this article. A State Department spokesperson says, “the administration is in the process of reviewing agencies throughout the executive branch in pursuit of increased efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability” as part of an executive order signed by the president last year.

Under previous presidents, the National Security Council and the State Department led discussions on refugee policy. But under President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Domestic Policy Council are driving the debate, current and former officials say. As a result, domestic politics — and the president’s pledge to crack down on all forms of immigration — have shaped decision-making.

In announcing the 45,000 cap on refugees last year, the White House said the president’s decision represented a “responsible approach to promote the safety of the American people.”

But critics say the Trump White House has wildly overstated the potential threat posed by refugees, who undergo elaborate vetting overseen by DHS, the FBI, and intelligence agencies, and that Trump’s advisors fail to grasp the strategic implications of an about-face in America’s stance on refugees.

“This administration has viewed resettlement through a domestic policy and political lens. What they have failed to capture and understand is that refugee resettlement is purposefully grounded in our foreign policy,” says Nazanin Ash, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

The 38-year-old legislation that set up the country’s refugee program intentionally empowers the secretary of state to set policy and pledge humanitarian assistance in crises, says Ash, a former State Department official. “It helps with regional stability and security. Part of our leverage is saying, ‘We will take a certain number of refugees,’” she says.

The bureau’s programs allow U.S. diplomats to help broker peace agreements or defuse tensions in volatile parts of the world, former senior officials say.

“When our diplomats attend international conferences, when they negotiate issues like access, protection, when they’re looking at negotiations surrounding peace settlements, having those resources right by their side is a critical component of American power and influence, and our ability to achieve outcomes that we desire,” a former senior State Department official says.

In 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry was able to persuade Kenya to not close a large refugee camp that would have forced Somalis back to their war-torn home country. The bureau’s overseas assistance programs gave Kerry leverage, as he could offer tens of millions of dollars worth of aid to alleviate the refugee burden shouldered by Nairobi, former officials say.

“What they’re doing to [the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration] and how they’re treating refugees is just an embarrassment to our country,” says one senior State Department official. “They just keep planning on gutting [the bureau].”

Humanitarian organizations and Democrats in Congress accuse the administration of using bureaucratic methods to obstruct the admission of refugees to the United States, as the numbers accepted have dropped to a trickle over the past six months. In a letter to the president this week, 126 House Democrats led by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) wrote that “your administration has slowed the resettlement process through executive orders, administrative roadblocks, and lack of proper staffing.”

Last year, the White House also considered stripping the bureau of its role coordinating the admission of refugees to the United States, and moving it to the Department of Homeland Security. That idea has been dropped and is not currently under consideration, officials say.

But representatives at aid organizations and former diplomats worry that if the bureau’s major programs are handed over to USAID, the Trump administration would then seek to whittle away on what’s left of the office, including its authority over refugee admissions policy.

Those concerns were reinforced when the administration recently chose Andrew Veprek to serve as deputy assistant secretary at the refugee bureau. Now in a senior role at the bureau, Veprek holds hard-line views on refugees that have raised alarms among State Department officials.

Several current and former State Department and White House officials say Veprek, a midlevel foreign service officer, argued for more restrictions on admitting refugees when he served under White House senior advisor Stephen Miller, who has masterminded the president’s anti-immigration agenda. In an internal debate in the administration last year, Veprek pushed hard to scale back the number of refugees who could be admitted to the United States, while portraying them as a serious security threat.

“He is a true believer in the Trump immigration agenda,” says a former administration official, speaking to FP on condition of anonymity.

Veprek’s recent appointment prompted a letter on Tuesday from a dozen Democratic senators, who raised concerns about his relatively junior rank as a foreign service officer and his track record on immigration and refugees.

“His appointment is the equivalent of placing a lieutenant colonel into a one-star general position,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The senators urged Pompeo to “impress upon Mr. Veprek the value of implementing a robust refugee resettlement program and recommit to U.S. leadership in resettling the most vulnerable populations in the world.”

The letter amounted to a warning shot from Senate Democrats to the administration, which has yet to nominate someone to head the refugee bureau and oversee Veprek.

“This is just another troubling signal that this administration intends to continue dismantling our nation’s already crippled refugee program,” they wrote.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer