A Cornell professor lamented on Wednesday that the United States is abandoning its humanitarian tradition by limiting the number of refugees it resettles in the country during the first “Chats in the Stacks” book talk of the semester.
Maria Cristina Garcia, the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies, history, and author of The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America explained that the word refugee derives from the French verb se réfugier, meaning to seek shelter from danger. Journalists, clergy, and advocates use the term to refer to a wide range of people of humanitarian concern. However, its “meaning under U.S. domestic law is much more precise,” she said. “There are strict limits on who can be granted admission into the country.”
The United States policy of discriminating against migrants goes back to the early 20th century when “racist national origins quotas were in place,” Garcia said. These quotas were later reversed by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which was amended in 1980. The 1980 Refugee Act, which draws on the United Nations definition of refugees, created a permanent track for refugee admissions which requires congressional input, according to Garcia.
However, with the September 11 attacks, “America as a place of refuge” was drastically impacted, Garcia said. Whereas during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers advocated for the admission of refugees — among them was Joseph Stalin’s daughter — as a “powerful symbol, choosing capitalism over communism,” in the post-9/11 world a “fear of accepting refugees from areas believed to be incubators of terrorism” pervades, she argued.
Garcia described researching the United States’ treatment of refugees after the War on Terror as “very challenging and depressing work.” The vetting process for refugee applicants can take between 18 and 24 months, with no guarantee that an entry permit will be granted upon completion, according to Garcia.
The U.S. also “discourages asylum claims by resorting to methods such as expedited removal, indefinite detention, and withholding work authorization permits,” Garcia said.
“It is a very capricious system wherein decisions are rendered ad hoc,” she said. “With no oversight, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, IIRAIRA, gives immigration officials extraordinary authority to remove people from the country on the spot.”
Many apprehended immigrants are held in prisons owned by private companies. “Detention has become a multibillion dollar industry,” Garcia said. “It is no wonder that the stock prices of these companies rose by 43 percent after Trump’s election.”
The concern about refugees in the post-Cold War era is one of “national security,” Garcia explained. “While understandable, the data does not back it up.”
She pointed to a CATO Institute study that calculated the risk of being killed by a refugee at 1 in 3.6 billion a year. As a point of comparison, Garcia cited the likelihood of being shot by a gun — 1 in 25,000 a year.
“The 70 million refugees worldwide are the most vetted population,” Garcia said. “Upon taking office, however, Donald Trump reduced the number of refugees to be absorbed by the United States from 110,000 to 50,000.”
In 2015, the United States led the world in refugee resettlement. “Three years later, the U.S. is projected to take in the lowest number of displaced persons since the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” Garcia said. “We are committed to 45,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, yet we haven’t even reached half of that yet.”
Garcia attributes declining U.S. refugee intake figures to “compassion fatigue” and warned that the American national character is at grave risk. She urged audience members to exert “moral pressure” to ensure “our responsibilities as a nation are met.”
“We have always prided ourselves on being a place of refuge,” Garcia said. “It would be sad if we continue to lose sight of this in the years to come.”