Voice

Biden’s Refugee Policy Is a Profile in Cowardice

As immigration becomes a political crisis, the U.S. president has chosen pandering to nativists over problem-solving.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Angela Merkel (L) speaks with Joe Biden at the start of their meeting at the Chancellery on Feb. 1, 2013 in in Berlin.
Angela Merkel (L) speaks with Joe Biden at the start of their meeting at the Chancellery on Feb. 1, 2013 in in Berlin. Steffen Kugler-Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images

On Friday, President Joe Biden made the first morally calamitous decision of his young presidency: He agreed to retain Donald Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 refugees to be admitted this year. The decision, the White House said, was “justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” The claim was so preposterous, and so utterly at variance with Biden’s own professed values, that several hours later the administration was forced to walk the decision back.

Of course, we know where the president is coming from. The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe provoked a political disaster; right-wing nationalist parties shot to prominence, and in some cases to power, in countries like Germany and Sweden that adopted a generous policy toward refugees. The fact that the United States remained aloof from the crisis did not prevent Trump from exploiting groundless fears of violent refugees and migrants swarming over our borders. It is fair to assume that Biden does not want to sacrifice the boldest domestic agenda in two generations to the cause of the refugees.

On Friday, President Joe Biden made the first morally calamitous decision of his young presidency: He agreed to retain Donald Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 refugees to be admitted this year. The decision, the White House said, was “justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” The claim was so preposterous, and so utterly at variance with Biden’s own professed values, that several hours later the administration was forced to walk the decision back.

Of course, we know where the president is coming from. The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe provoked a political disaster; right-wing nationalist parties shot to prominence, and in some cases to power, in countries like Germany and Sweden that adopted a generous policy toward refugees. The fact that the United States remained aloof from the crisis did not prevent Trump from exploiting groundless fears of violent refugees and migrants swarming over our borders. It is fair to assume that Biden does not want to sacrifice the boldest domestic agenda in two generations to the cause of the refugees.

The United States was spared Europe’s agony by the good fortune of geography; Syrian refugees could not walk there. Americans have traditionally been able to choose which refugees they accept. But that era may have come to an end, for the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border has begun to rival the numbers that reached Europe in 2015. The question that we need to ask—the question European leaders asked in 2015 and 2016—is whether there is some way to reconcile moral obligation with political reality.

In his forthcoming book, The Wealth of Refugees, Alexander Betts, an expert on forced migration at the University of Oxford, writes that a sustainable refugee policy must not only satisfy the care of duty to refugees but must also enjoy broad political support in host countries. Betts notes that the forces driving up the number of refugees—civil war and failed states, food insecurity, corruption, climate change—are only likely to increase in coming years but also that the forces limiting the willingness of wealthy countries to accept refugees, including relative economic decline and anxiety over cultural identity, are going to grow, too. How, then, to solve this terrible problem?

When I spoke to Betts earlier this week, he argued that the United States is now facing a refugee problem “potentially on the scale that Europe faced in 2015-6.” Americans are accustomed to think of those arriving on the southern U.S. border as migrants seeking work. That was true for generations. But the number of single Mexican men—the classic migrant profile—began to taper off more than a decade ago as Mexico became more prosperous. By 2014, more migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—than from Mexico were reaching the border. These countries suffer from weak and deeply corrupt states that allow gangs to flourish, endemic violence against women, climate change that has devastated cash crops, and deep and growing poverty.

Between 2013 and 2019, the number of asylum applications from the Northern Triangle grew more than tenfold. (Under U.S. law, migrants who reach the border request “asylum,” while those resettled from abroad are known as “refugees.” The standards for admission are the same, but asylees do not count against the annual limit for refugees.) The combination of Trump administration policy and an immense backlog of cases means that few have been processed. But we also need to ask ourselves whether many of these migrants do, in fact, present a serious case for asylum. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who faces a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The definition was formulated in response to Nazi murder and persecution. It does not fit most of the women and children fleeing the Northern Triangle. But it also does not fit most of the people who fled Aleppo and Homs after the Syrian civil war began in 2011. They were, however, running for their lives; so, too, are many of those fleeing Central America, not to mention the millions who have fled the collapsing state of Venezuela. They are what Betts calls “survival migrants.” They are what refugees look like today.

Of course, we cannot simply ignore the distinction between a refugee and a migrant; if we did, rich countries would each elect their own Trump long before the millions arrived. That is Betts’s point about sustainability. One lesson that became painfully clear in the fall of 2015 is that people care very much about the security of their borders. By failing to act preventively to provide decent care for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, and by absorbing some of them in an orderly fashion, European states sowed a whirlwind, leaving refugees to risk death by drowning or tramp through snowy forests before presenting themselves at borders in colossal numbers. European publics were first deeply moved by the migrants’ suffering—and then frightened and angered by the scenes of chaos.

Belatedly, the European Union began providing economic aid, trade, and capacity-building to nations of transit like Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia, and to African countries that have become new sources of migrants, with the hope of stanching the flow. The dry-eyed assessment I heard from the experts I spoke to is that this has succeeded in solving Europe’s political problem without doing much for the refugees themselves. (See my 2016 report in Foreign Policy from Brussels and Greece for a similar conclusion.)

Europe has succeeded, insofar as it has, by acting systematically and by working with the other nations implicated in the problem. Shutting the door to refugees does not qualify in either respect. The United States, like the EU, must work with both the countries of origin and the transit countries. If, for example, we accept that many of those arriving at the border are, in fact, refugees, then some of them must be granted asylum elsewhere in the region, above all in Mexico, which has already become a host nation for Central Americans. The United States will have to provide assistance not only to help resettle those refugees but to ensure that they have gainful employment; that can be done through the United Nations rather than directly so that Mexico do not feel that it is being bribed to take America’s problem off its hands (even if that’s the case). Betts points out that the United States and the EU funded a large-scale resettlement program in the 1990s when civil wars sent millions of people fleeing across Latin America. At the time, Mexico relocated tens of thousands of Guatemalans to the Yucatán and helped provide agricultural and small-scale employment.

Given the U.S. backlog of asylum cases, new applicants in the United States would inevitably be released into the country, perhaps for years, becoming de facto immigrants. Under Trump, the United States forced applicants for asylum to be processed in Mexico, where they have lingered in squalid and dangerous conditions. So far, the Biden administration has tried to mollify anti-immigrant feeling by preserving this inhumane policy. But these are not the only two options. Washington could set up satellite visa and asylum offices in Mexico, as Europe has done in several transit countries.

But we also need to think in a more imaginative way about how to accommodate these migrants, however we define them. “Right now, we have a one-door, one-place problem,” said Dan Restrepo, a former senior Latin America advisor to President Barack Obama. The only door for Northern Triangle migrants is marked “refugee,” and it can be opened only by passing through the southern U.S. border. Why not set aside temporary work permits for those leaving for strictly economic reasons? Awarding those permits only in the home country, Restrepo said, would change the “decisional calculus” of a whole class of would-be refugees. The same could be true with visas for family reunification. Restrepo added that “you can create doors, or lines, for most, though not all, categories of people who are on the move.” Those who fear for their lives would, of course, continue to cross the borders in search of safety.

None of this is news to the Biden administration. Many of the officials now responsible for migration policy are drawn from the think tanks and advocacy bodies that have been calling for a more humane and flexible policy for years. The news over refugee caps must be a real blow to many of them. They are, in any case, busy trying to overturn the hundreds of onerous regulations passed during the Trump years. But the problem, whether you call it a problem of refugees or of migrants, is only going to get worse while the president tries to placate the America Firsters.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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