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What Will Happen to Refugees Under a Trump Administration?

By on December 13, 2016

refugees walking in sunset

As we prepare for President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, we know that what we do and the way we work must change. UUSC has been working hard, connecting with local, state, and national partners to understand what the effects may be for refugees and immigrants, and how to best to mobilize in the face of increased racism, xenophobia, hate, and fear. 

This is an important time for all of us to carefully reflect, evaluate, and redouble our commitment to human rights both inside and beyond the United States. This is a struggle that will require each and every one of us to take action in a wide range of roles. With our partners, UUSC is preparing an exciting new comprehensive campaign to be launched in January. Please watch for announcements about how you can join this effort. 

In the meantime, it is important for all of us to become more aware of what is at stake for U.S. policy towards welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers – some of the most vulnerable communities under the incoming administration.   

Can Trump shut down the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program?

  • The President-elect has said that he will not challenge local, county, and state regulations that bar refugees from resettlement in their communities.
  • President Trump will have the authority, under the 1980 Refugee Act, to unilaterally determine the number of refugees the U.S. will accept. This year, President Obama raised that number from 70,000 to 110,000 for 2017. President Trump can set a new number – even as low as zero.
  • The President-elect’s public statements suggest that he is very likely to shrink, underfund, or “pause” the refugee resettlement program, in order to review the process. A suspension of resettlement is extremely dangerous because, while it sounds less serious than “dismantling” resettlement, it could have the same result. All of the infrastructure, including refugee resettlement agencies that depend on federal funding, would be forced to close, and would not be easy to re-establish if and when it was restarted.

Can refugees already in the U.S. be deported?

Short answer: In most cases, no, but the exceptions may become more common.

  • Refugees already in the United States, including those with legal resident green cards as well as those with only refugee status, have legal protection from deportations. However, Trump’s plans to expand the definition of who is a “criminal immigrant” and thus, possibly deportable, will surely catch many refugees in its wider net. Any non-citizen who is 1) charged, but not convicted of a crime, 2) has a non-violent misdemeanor record (no matter how long ago), or 3) is merely suspected of gang behavior, will likely be priority categories for deportation under a Trump presidency.
  • Asylum-seekers, such as the Central American families held in family detention centers, may be held in detention for multiple years while they pursue protection. In addition to an unacceptable human rights violation, this also makes it harder for them to have access to a lawyer as they pursue their case.
  • If a Trump Administration reinstates the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System (NSEERS), described as his “Muslim registry,” U.S. visa-holders from majority-Muslim countries will be subject to heightened monitoring and increased risk of deportation. This will include both asylum-seekers and non-refugees.

Can Trump actually ban Muslim refugees from entering the United States?

Short Answer: Kind of – and more.

  • While an across-the-board ban designed to block all Muslims from entering the United States (e.g., as a tourist or student, on a business visa, etc.) is widely believed to be unconstitutional, he absolutely has power to limit entry as it pertains to refugees. The administration may prioritize Christians and other non-Muslims for resettlement or, more likely, stop refugee resettlement for entire countries and regions, primarily but not exclusively Muslim-majority countries, regardless of the individual’s religious background.

What else could happen?

Short Answer: Unfortunately, a lot we don’t know, but here are a list of some immediate possibilities and areas for concern. (That’s why we need to organize!)

  • There is a high risk of states passing anti-refugee bills, which the federal government under Trump would be likely to support rather than challenge.
  • The possible end of the Affordable Care Act will result in a high rate of loss of health care coverage for refugee families.
  • Asylum-seekers could be blocked at the border and not allowed to apply for entry (in violation of international law). Our advocacy partners have already documented cases of this happening in Tijuana, Mexico.
  • There could be threats to LGBTQ asylum-seekers status as a protected “social group,” which provides them a right to asylum when targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Despite these disturbing possibilities, we see many reasons to be hopeful in this moment, in particular, the work of community members like you. Grassroots movements are growing and many people are getting involved in local and regional efforts for the first time. This sense of urgency is helping to break down barriers and bring diverse groups together to protect and defend current rights, and continue working for a more just future.

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