Trump's unprecedented refugee policy is a huge economic mistake. Here's why.
At 22 and 24, Mohammad and Hasti Amini are in the prime of their young adult lives—a time when those who haven't been forced to flee deadly conflict are launching careers and making plans for the future. The Aminis escaped from Afghanistan to Indonesia with their mother and two other siblings five years ago, after their oldest brother was killed by the Taliban and their grief-stricken father died of a heart attack.
Now, they are stuck in a country where they have no legal status or protections. They can't legally work, can't get a degree—they can't even open a bank account. Since Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is under no obligation to care for refugees. The Aminis had only planned to stop briefly in Jakarta on their way to a safe third country that resettles refugees. But for five years, their hopes have been dashed again and again, as wealthy nations like the U.S. and Australia continue to severely limit the number of refugees they will welcome.
Currently, the Trump administration is poised to set the 2020 refugee resettlement ceiling at 18,000—by far the lowest number in the nearly 40 years of our resettlement program. For comparison, the refugee ceiling set by Obama for 2017 was 110,000—approximately the average number the U.S. has resettled annually. Trump cut that ceiling to 45,000 in 2018 (but only resettled 23,000), then to 30,000 in 2019.
The new proposed ceiling of 18,000 is even lower than the year after 9/11, when the government understandably tightened all immigration programs for security reasons. In 2002, after the worst terrorist attack in history, the Bush administration still resettled 27,000 refugees—more than 30% more than Trump plans to resettle this coming year.
Is this really what we want our response to be when the world faces its biggest refugee crisis since WWII? The U.S. keeps bragging about how well our economy is doing, which logically should mean we have more resources to help. Imagine the family with the fanciest house on the block, with plenty of extra bedrooms, shuttering their doors while their neighbors' houses burn and families are looking for shelter. That's us, right now.
(Just so we're clear, refugee resettlement is totally separate from the migration situation we're seeing at the southern border. Official refugees who are eligible for resettlement have their situations vetted through official channels, such as the UNHCR, and then come through our official government resettlement program. That program has always operated in a separate sphere from migrants and asylum seekers at our border.)
The 2020 fiscal year began on October 1, and so far, the U.S. has resettled an unprecedented zero refugees. Those who were scheduled to arrive this month—people who have approvals and plane tickets and health checks and all other requirements in place—have been delayed for three weeks in a row. More than 500 refugees we already agreed to admit are standing on the doorstep, bags in hand, waiting for us to unlock the door. And our government is peering at them through the peephole, telling them to wait out on the porch indefinitely.
The U.S. has a long, proud, and successful history of resettling refugees. We have always welcomed far more refugees than any other country, which makes sense, considering our population size and wealth. In 2018, Canada—a country with one-tenth of our population and GDP—resettled more refugees than we did for the first time. And per capita, our refugee resettlement numbers have gone from average to abysmal in the past few years.
But here's the thing: Slashing our resettlement numbers further is not just an international embarrassment—it's an enormous economic mistake.
Mohammad and Hasti are perfect examples of why. We were first introduced through an American friend living in Jakarta, who met them while volunteering as an English teacher at a refugee learning center. He told me about some incredible students in his class, and said countries like the U.S. should be bidding on them, not turning them away.
When I interviewed them for an article last year, I found myself in complete agreement. Mohammad and Hasti both volunteer at the learning center themselves, in addition to taking classes. They spend their time building valuable skills, learning, and preparing for a future they may never see. These are people who embody all of the qualities we want in our society— hard-working, service-minded, courageous, determined, creative, and eager to learn. They would be an asset to our nation, not a liability.
And this isn't just some bleeding-heart, humanitarian impulse to help. The data is quite clear on the net positive impact refugees have on the economy. While resettlement requires an initial investment, over time they end up contributing more to the economy than they cost. Migrants in general are much more likely to be entrepreneurs than native citizens, which helps boost job numbers and economic growth. Refugees are an economic asset in the long run.
A few weeks ago, I got to meet Mohammad and Hasti in person in Jakarta. Hasti brought me a hand-made makeup bag she had designed and sewn as a gift, and the quality was outstanding. She ultimately wants to be a fashion designer, but she can't go to college, start a business, or even be employed in Indonesia. She sells her bags to individuals and at occasional bazaars where refugees can sell items to earn a little cash, but she has to jump through multiple hoops to avoid legal pitfalls.
With some outside help, she has started an Instagram account for her creations under the name WarNa—a play on words in three languages. "Warna" in Indonesian means "colorful." "War" and "Na" combine the English word "war" with the Persian "na," which means "no." The hope is that if she gets resettled, she'll have some smart business elements already in place so she can hit the ground running.
I could totally see Hasti starting a successful business in the U.S., if she had the chance to do so. And Mohammad could honestly do just about anything—with his intelligence, determination, ambition, and sweet disposition, I would hire the young man in a heartbeat. Mohammad has been trying every avenue he can find for resettlement for years, focusing mainly on Canada's private refugee resettlement program, which seems to be the best hope at this point. But so far, no luck.
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Due to the backlog of resettlements, the UNHCR has told the refugees stuck in Indonesia that they should plan on probably never being resettled. Mohammad and Hasti try hard to hold onto hope, but the vulnerability of their situation is hard to hide. Hasti tells me her mother suffers from high blood pressure and has regular anxiety attacks—an understandable reaction to the trauma she's experienced. As the eldest daughter, Hasti bears the weight of family responsibility on her shoulders in addition to her own personal struggles through all of this.
"That must be really hard," I tell her. She nods slowly, and her gaze shifts to the ground. In a quiet voice, almost as if she's talking to herself, she says, "I have to be very strong."
I wish every American could meet these people. Naturally, refugees are as diverse as the rest of us, but the nature of being a refugee is a character filter of sorts all on its own. First of all, to be a refugee in an official sense, you have to prove that it's too dangerous for you to return to your place of origin, so your claims are already vetted. Secondly, fleeing danger takes courage, fortitude, and problem-solving, so those who have made it out of conflict zones already have these tested character qualities. Third, refugees are motivated to make the most of their circumstances, especially those who have spent years waiting for a chance to build a life—isn't that what we want more of in our society?
I can't do anything about Indonesia's refugee policies, and I can't personally bring Mohammad and Hasti's family here. But as a U.S. citizen, I can pressure my government to do the right thing—the humane and economically smart thing—by resettling far more refugees than we are now.
(P.S. If any Canadians out there want to privately sponsor a stellar refugee family, let me know. I will happily hook you up.)