Researcher postcard: Are would-be new Americans part of Trump’s ‘new American moment’?

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President Trump delivers the State of the Union address to Congress, Jan. 30, 2018. (Photo Credit: White House)On Tuesday night in Washington DC, the President of the United States delivered his first report on the ‘State of the Union’. The nation, President Donald Trump said, is ‘compassionate’, and does ‘more than any other country’ to help those in need around the world.  Yet on immigration and refugee policy, the Trump administration’s ‘America first’ approach is harsh, divisive, and full of uncertainty for many migrants within the US and for those seeking protection in the country as refugees.

Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has generated intense controversy for restricting the entry of visitors and migrants from certain areas of the world, and for moving to wind back the Obama-era protection afforded to young undocumented migrants known as ‘dreamers’, who had arrived in the country as children. Trump is now offering protection for dreamers in exchange for restrictions on migrants’ ability to bring family to the US and billions of dollars in funding for his long-touted ‘wall’ between Mexico and the United States. In recent days these contentious negotiating points helped spark a brief US government shutdown and highlighted division on immigration within both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Refugee policy was not explicitly mentioned in the State of the Union, but it has been subject to a similarly hardline approach during Trump’s first year in office. The United States has a long-standing humanitarian resettlement program, through which about three million refugees have arrived in the country in the past four decade. But the Trump administration slashed the total refugee program for FY2018 to a record low of 45,000 places. According to Professor Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution, the tightening of administrative procedures ‘make it unlikely that even 50 percent of that already-low ceiling will be met’. Indeed, this week the Department of Homeland Security announced additional vetting measures for applicants to the resettlement program. And according to the International Rescue Committee, figures for FY2018 show the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees resettled so far is significantly lower than at this time last year.

The cuts to the FY2018 refugee program have already had widespread impact at home and abroad. According to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute, the reduced number of refugee arrivals is impacting resettlement services across the United States, resulting in a loss of jobs, experience and capacity within those organisations in the refugee sector, and reduced services for the refugees themselves.

And farther afield, the Trump administration’s abolition of an in-country program that helped children escape gang violence in Central America has reportedly left many applicants facing an uncertain future. The program was one of several that US administrations have operated in designated areas of the world, providing settlement in the US to people who are in need of protection but who are yet to flee across an international border.

In early January I arrived in Washington D.C. to research the history of these programs, working as a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. While the U.S commitment to in-country programs may have diminished under Trump, these pathways remain of interest within the international community, and were recommended in a prominent 2017 report by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Migration.

If, as Trump stated last night, America is rebuilding ‘strength and confidence at home’ and ‘restoring our strength and standing abroad’,  then the US approach to refugees and migrants must be considered as part of that. Immigrants have always been a source of the American greatness Trump so glorifies. But at the end of Trump’s first State of the Union, a set-piece ritual of US politics, it remained unclear how his policies will bring would-be new Americans into what he called “our new American moment”.

This Researcher Postcard is the first of an occasional series of writings from Kaldor Centre Senior Research Associate Dr Claire Higgins during her Fulbright Postdoctoral research in the United States. Her book Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s Refugee Policy, was released in September 2017.

Listen or read more about Humanitarian Corridors, or explore the Kaldor Centre’s work on In-country processing and orderly departure programmes.