Trump's unprecedented refugee policy is a huge economic mistake. Here's why.
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash, Bill Frelick/Twitter

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.

RELATED: The refugee crisis is daunting, but Canada offers an inspiring example of how to help.

(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.

RELATED: For refugee women trapped in limbo, 'The Sisterhood' offers a vital lifeline of hope and support

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.)

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."