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Refugee Skeptic to Assume Key Role on Migration Issues at State Department

The shift is part of the Trump administration’s broader campaign to crack down on refugees and immigration.

U.S. President Donald Trump discuss immigration issues during a meeting with Republican members of Congress and cabinet members at the White House on June 20. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump discuss immigration issues during a meeting with Republican members of Congress and cabinet members at the White House on June 20. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

A White House aide and ally of President Donald Trump’s most hard-line advisor, Stephen Miller, has been appointed to a position at the State Department where he would exercise influence over refugee policies, in a move that could further enable the administration’s harsh crackdown on migration.

John Zadrozny had served on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, a powerful office that had appropriated from both the State Department and the National Security Council some authority over refugee admissions policy.

In his new job, he will over oversee a portfolio of issues at the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, an office that serves as a type of in-house think tank for the secretary of state but had developed outsized influence in the Trump administration under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Former officials say he will help oversee the department’s refugee policies.

A State Department spokeswoman confirmed the move to Foreign Policy on Thursday but declined to confirm his specific portfolio. “He will coordinate with a number of bureaus in his new role,” the spokeswoman said, without providing details.

Zadrozny has served as an official in the George W. Bush administration and a top aide to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

The internal shift is part of a broader battle being fought in Washington over Trump’s strategy regarding refugees and immigrants—and which agencies will oversee policy on the matter. Trump has clamped down on the entry of immigrants and refugees to the country, and his administration is eyeing plans to defund or disempower the State Department’s refugee department: the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The Policy Planning Staff, where Zadrozny will serve, wields influence over the bureau, which the administration has in the past tried to defund or remove from the State Department. The bureau owes its survival in part to a sharp congressional backlash on the issue.

Some senior officials who have advocated for refugees have been forced out in recent months. Jennifer Arangio, a senior director at the National Security Council who managed U.S. policy with international organizations, was fired and escorted from her office this month following clashes over refugee issues with Miller, the top Trump aide.

Beyond the staffing changes, Trump has exerted his powers to clamp down on refugee admittances—in the face of congressional and judicial pushback. Former President Barack Obama pushed to increase the ceiling on refugees admitted into the country from 70,000 to 110,000, but Trump slashed the limit to 45,000 as part of his campaign pledge to cut immigration and secure U.S. borders. His administration has also imposed bureaucratic restrictions for refugees seeking to come to the United States—only about half the allotted number are expected to be allowed into the country this year.

Trump also tapped an anti-immigrant hard-liner, Ronald Mortensen, to head the bureau in May, leading to criticism from lawmakers and former State Department officials. Last month, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons issued a blistering rebuke of Mortensen’s nomination in a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

They criticized him for “a lack of empathy” toward refugees and “virulent” opposition to immigration.

Fifty-seven Democratic lawmakers sent a separate letter urging the president to withdraw Mortensen, a fellow at the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies and a former foreign service officer, from consideration for the senior State Department role. Two congressional staffers told FP that the stiff resistance to Mortensen has slowed the process in committee, and as a result his nomination may not go through.

Zadrozny worked in the White House shop that reported to Miller, Trump’s virulently anti-immigration advisor who is considered the chief architect behind some of the administration’s most controversial policies. Miller advised Trump on his travel ban executive order and policy of separating parents and children trying to cross into the United States.

Zadrozny is also close to Andrew Veprek, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the embattled refugee bureau, according to former officials. Veprek has most recently come under fire for pushing to soften language on a United Nations resolution condemning racism, first reported by CNN.

As the White House stacks the State Department with more refugee skeptics, some officials and refugee advocates fear the administration is pushing to revoke the State Department’s oversight on refugee admissions and shift responsibility over to the U.S. Agency for International Development, or scrap the bureau entirely. On Monday, 11 aid organizations and dozens of former U.S. diplomats sent a letter to Pompeo urging him to keep the bureau, calling such a decision “an error of grave proportion.”

The bureau, which historically oversaw a budget of between $3.5 billion and $4 billion, funded the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and other institutions that aim to support refugees.

In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert sidestepped questions on the fate of the bureau, saying no decision has been finalized.

“I’m not going to get ahead of any of the secretary’s decision-making on this issue. It’s an important issue that will … require a lot of careful thought,” she told reporters.

Before joining Cruz’s Senate office, Zadrozny worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Reuters reported he has also worked for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group that pushes to curb legal and illegal immigration into the United States.

Under President George W. Bush’s administration, Zadrozny worked as deputy director of the State Department’s public liaison office and in the White House’s office of National Drug Control Policy.

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

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