Executive Orders Affecting Refugees Will Only Harm the US National Interest

January 27, 2017

On Monday March 6th, President Trump signed a revised executive order after a federal appeals court blocked the first iteration. The new order differs in a few substantive ways from the first: first, removing Iraq from the list of countries subject to a 90-day travel ban; second, excluding green card holders from travel restrictions; third, eliminating an exemption for refugees who are religious minorities; and finally relaxing the blanket restriction on Syrian refugees. However, the main principles of the executive order remain unchanged and therefore our analysis does as well.

Among the wave of executive orders being developed by the Trump administration, so far two specifically target US commitments to refugees. They are consistent with Trump’s campaign promises to tighten borders and disengage from the world. And, if signed, they would result in serious harm to vulnerable people and alienate allies the United States needs to fight violent extremism and protect American interests.

What the Executive Orders Would Do

Based on available drafts of the executive orders, two directly impact the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The first, “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals,” suspends USRAP for 120 days to review and strengthen vetting procedures and reduces the overall number of refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017. Since the Obama administration resettled nearly 26,000 refugees between October and December 2016, only an additional 24,000 refugees could be admitted this fiscal year. The draft executive order (EO) also ends admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely, instead suggesting a plan to create safe areas for temporary resettlement in Syria and the region.

A second draft EO, “Protecting Taxpayer Resources by Ensuring Our Immigration Laws Promote Accountability and Responsibility,” directs the Secretary of State to report on the long-term costs of the USRAP at federal, state and local levels. More broadly, it requires that State Department visa policy better reflect the goals of the EO to deny admission to those with the potential to become a public charge, i.e. recipients of means-tested public benefits.

Why These EOs Are Misguided and Their Implications for Refugees and US Interests

National security vetting for individuals seeking a home in the United States is critical. However, these policy proposals fail to recognize the broader costs of these measures—both to refugees and US national security—and do not reflect an understanding of evidence and past experience.

President Trump has consistently highlighted refugees as a group that carries special risk of having terrorist ties. But refugees already undergo more rigorous screening than anyone else allowed to enter the United States. We have resettled almost one million refugees since September 11, 2001; in this time, not one has been convicted for domestic terror threats, nor has any resettled refugee carried out an attack either within the United States or overseas. A Cato Institute study shows the likelihood of an American dying in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was one in 3.64 billion a year. By comparison, the chance of being murdered each year is one in 14,000; and the likelihood of being struck by lightning in a year is about one in one million. Terrorist acts, by their nature, are designed to generate fear and response beyond their statistical probability. Even taking this into account, the focus on refugees is misplaced and has devastating consequences for vulnerable people fleeing conflict and persecution.

Perhaps more importantly, experience from prior US immigration restrictions shows that ethnically discriminatory immigration policies impair US foreign policy. Migration experts David FitzGerald and David Cook-Martin find the exclusion of Japanese immigrants in 1924 promoted the growth of Japanese militarism against the United States in World War II. Apart from serious moral and ethical concerns, a blanket ban on Syrian refugees as well as all prospective migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries would likely score a propaganda victory for ISIS and other extremist groups. Similar efforts after 9/11 backfired, alienating critical Muslim partners in the fight against terrorism  at home and around the world while fueling the extremist narrative that the United States is in a war against Islam.  

The request to review the costs of the refugee program is underpinned by the assumption that refugees are at higher than average risk of becoming public charges. While it is true that refugees receive government support at first, once able to integrate and work they in fact outperform non-refugee migrants. Moreover, from 2009-2011, refugee men of working age were more likely to work than their US-born counterparts, and refugee women were just as likely to work as their US-born counterparts. Research from the Tent foundation shows that investing one euro in refugees up front can yield almost two in economic benefits within five years. Beyond the economic logic, imagine a world without Intel computer chips, Ghostbusters, or the general theory of relativity. All are the brainchildren of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States.

A separate EO that directs a 40 percent cut in funding to the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations would have serious implications for refugees around the world; our colleague Charles Kenny examines the broader implications of this policy proposal. Even if humanitarian funding is not targeted, an abdication of US leadership could produce spillover effects for the fledgling refugee and migration compact process initiated at the UN General Assembly this past September. Moreover, large budget cuts would negatively impact the UN’s overall capacity to provide life-saving assistance to tens of millions of people each year. In combination, the recent executive orders send a clear message that the United States is stepping back from addressing the refugee crisis—a recipe for greater instability and risk.

Refugee resettlement is a last ditch effort, meaning that these people cannot return home or remain in their current host country for the foreseeable future. The UN refugee agency estimates that 1.2 million refugees are in need of resettlement in a third country; already fewer than ten percent of these people successfully relocate. Historically, the United States has stepped up to welcome almost a full two thirds of this total. Abdicating this leadership will not only resign thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people to refugee camps and war zones; it sets an example for other countries to slash resettlement quotas. The draft EO suggests creating temporary refugee “safe zones” in the region in lieu of a resettlement program for Syrian refugees. Foreign policy and humanitarian experts are divided on the potential effectiveness of this policy, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to suggest a region already hosting millions of refugees take in even more, as we ourselves backslide on resettlement and broader support to refugees.

What Needs to Happen Next

It may take congressional action to prevent the United States from surrendering moral leadership on protecting the world’s most vulnerable. Just as bipartisan legislation has recently been introduced to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, we encourage Congress to act to protect our resettlement program and assistance to refugees. Building on the support of the private sector and citizen groups, Congress could also push for measures that increase the engagement of private and nongovernmental actors, including through private sponsorship for refugees similar to Canada’s model and enabling companies to admit more refugees through work channels. Historically, the United States has supported refugees at home and around the world to advance both its values and national security. These new policies betray America’s founding values and principles, and their overall impact—as part of a broader and profound withdrawal from global leadership—will not protect our country but only put us at greater risk.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.