Geopolitics, not humanitarianism, has long guided US refugee policy

On September 27, President Biden sign a presidential decision setting the new refugee admission ceiling for fiscal year 2023. Despite statements by the president commitment to rebuild and strengthen the US Welcome and Placement Program (USRAP) after the Trump-era cuts, the new admission cap has not been increased from last year’s number 125,000. Actual admission totals in 2022 fell well below the cap.

Although initially advocating greeted Electing Biden as a chance to repeal restrictions from former President Donald Trump and expand humanitarian protections, the administration’s progress has been irresolute, raising questions about Biden’s commitment to restoring the safe haven in the United States. The decision recently made public by the President States that the 125,000 cap is “justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest” – yet it is not humanitarian concerns that primarily shape refugee policy decisions.

The United States has been seen as a haven for those fleeing persecution since its earliest days, and tales of refuge and humanitarian protection have long been a crucial part of the American mythos. However, resettling refugees in the United States has never been solely about providing refuge. Despite the programme’s purported humanitarian commitments, US refugee policy aligns with and supports the nation’s geopolitical interests. The recent determination of Biden’s admissions is best understood as a continuation of this story.

US refugee policy has long privileged certain groups and excluded others based on perceived national security interests or geopolitical alliances. Prior to the establishment of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Jewish advocates urged the US government to admit European Jews and other minorities displaced by Nazi aggression. However, national security concerns and selective immigration “quota laws” — not to mention institutional anti-Semitism — have made it difficult for many to enter the United States.

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to expedite the resettlement of displaced Europeans to the United States in accordance with existing nationality-based immigration quotas. Additional provisions followed, including the Displaced Persons Act 1948 and subsequent amendments which enabled the resettlement of over 250,000 Europeans in the aftermath of World War II. However, these provisions did not extend protection to those displaced outside Europe, despite successive displacement events in other regions.

For several decades thereafter, the United States lacked a comprehensive framework for admitting refugees. As a result, refugees were largely admitted through reactive ad hoc programs that often lacked permanent residency or status provisions, while faith-based networks and organizations across the country carried out the resettlement work.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, improvised arrangements for certain displaced populations further exposed the selective geopolitical calculus of the United States in determining the limits of deserving asylum and protection in national refugee policy. Following the 1956 revolution in Hungary against the Soviet Union, thousands displaced Hungarians were brought to the United States under existing arrangements. During the same period, more than half a million people were violently displaced during the Korean War. Despite US military involvement in the peninsula, no resettlement or parole programs for displaced Koreans have been enacted.

Similar patterns emerged over the following decades, in keeping with the zeitgeist of the Cold War and subsequent US military entanglements. Later, resettlement arrangements were made for Cubans as well as others considered defectors from communist ideologies. At the end of the Vietnam War, more than 300,000 refugees fleeing violence in Southeast Asia were admitted in the USA.

After nearly a century of anti-Asian sentiment and exclusion in American immigration policy, resettlement from Southeast Asia has reversed past trends. Yet this, too, served a geopolitical interest. After the failed military engagement in the region, many Americans felt a duty to rescue those seen as fleeing communismleading the country then the largest resettlement operation.

In 1980, the passage of the Refugee Act enacted significant changes to the structure of the resettlement program, placing the power to determine the admission of refugees in the hands of the President, restructuring admission requirements and channeling the resettlement funding through a new federal structure.

The act also brought U.S. policy in line with the definition of refugee status contained in international law, a measure a way explicitly anti-communist policies of previous years. However, this restructuring did little to change the geopolitical usefulness of refugee policy. Geopolitical alliances in Central America have led the US government to Deny refugee status to migrants fleeing violence in El Salvador and Guatemala due to US interventions supporting oppressive governments in both countries.

Since 1980, the United States has resettled more than 3.1 million refugees through USRAP, in addition to those granted asylum or admitted through complementary pathways such as humanitarian parole and special visa statuses. While the United States has resettled refugees from around the world, certain displacement events are prioritized for protection beyond the resettlement caps routinely set by the President.

Recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused the continued displacement of almost 7.5 million refugees. In response, the United States quickly joined other allies in issuing affirmations protection of refugees and opening up pathways for resettlement. After the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the United States launched Welcome to the allies of the operation to facilitate the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans to the United States. Despite the chaotic logistics of evacuation and transport, more than 76,000 Afghans have now been brought to the United States as humanitarian parolees, and recent legislation was introduced to provide additional support and a pathway to permanent residency.

Although other significant displacements and seizures occurred elsewhere during the same period, the geopolitical interests of the United States enabled a common response in both cases. Such initiatives for Ukrainians and Afghans are both important and welcome. The defenders have critical the lack of commensurate protections for other ongoing crises and populations, however. Additionally, although the admission of most Ukrainians and Afghans has occurred outside of the USRAP program, the admission of these groups reduced last year’s USRAP admissions and left thousands awaiting resettlement expect in limbo overseas.

More … than 100 million people are now counted among the forcibly displaced people in the world, and resettlement choice around the world have decreased. If, as the administration claims, the United States wishes to continue “lead the international humanitarian responsethere is still work to be done to ensure that the resettlement program responds to humanitarian objectives rather than geopolitical interests.

Viewing US refugee policy as a humanitarian initiative obscures the geopolitical underpinnings of the program and reinforces implicit notions that some populations are more deserving of protection than others. In a complicated global landscape, it remains politically expedient for the United States to offer refuge to those fleeing America’s enemies, rather than to other displaced populations in need.

Biden’s slow progress in increasing the number of refugee admissions undermines claims that this administration will prioritize rebuilding the haven. If the new admissions cap is reached over the coming year, 125,000 new arrivals would clear existing resettlement backlogs and boost recovering resettlement networks. But progress towards that goal remains to be seen. And more effort is needed if the United States is to restore humanitarian leadership in the face of pressing global displacement needs — beyond the bounds of geopolitical expediency.

About Roberto Frank

Check Also

Plains blizzard heralds unusually cold weather for Lower 48

Comment this story Comment The first major winter storm of the season, which has ravaged …