Well, it looks as if Stephen Miller — President Donald Trump’s dark angel on immigration — might have achieved one of his wishes. Last month, the United States admitted zero refugees for resettlement.
According to the advocacy group World Relief, October was the first month since it began keeping records 30 years ago that the government failed to allow a single refugee to resettle here, a stunning reversal of the nation’s longstanding role as the leading resettlement destination for people around the world with, in effect, no home to return to.
The U.S. unseated itself as the top destination for refugees in the first year of the Trump administration; before then, the nation routinely resettled more refugees each year than the rest of the world combined.
Resettled refugees differ from those living in camps or sheltering in cities until conditions settle sufficiently in their home countries for them to return. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are more than 70 million displaced persons around the world right now, more than even at the end of World War II.
Part of the slash in admissions in October was bureaucratic. Hundreds of refugees cleared for arrival suddenly were forced to wait, their flights canceled, apparently because Trump delayed signing the order capping refugee admissions for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to 18,000 people — the lowest level since the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern resettlement system.
Without the signed paperwork, the State Department declared a moratorium on new admissions, which it wound up extending twice. Trump signed the order Friday, and the State Department says refugee arrivals will likely resume Tuesday.
The fine details of bureaucratic delay are secondary to the bigger policy issue: The Trump administration has actively sought to throttle back immigration to the U.S., including desperate refugees (many of whom are seeking to reunite with families already here) and would-be lawful immigrants who can’t prove they can afford to pay for health care when they arrive (a federal judge on Saturday issued a nationwide restraining order against that rule, which was to have gone into effect Sunday).
Much of the president’s rancor toward immigrants seems rooted in racism. He famously decried immigrants from what he called execrable countries (he used a different phrase) in Africa and South America while saying he preferred people from Norway. It doesn’t take much effort to interpret that.
Reducing the inflow of refugees to a trickle offends on a different level. It contradicts the fundamental American story, that we are a nation of immigrants and their descendants, many of whom arrived here in flight from violence and deprivation (and yes, many in chains and against their will) in hopes of building a new life.
An unintended consequence — or maybe it was intended — of the precipitous drop in refugee arrivals is that the nine nonprofit agencies most responsible for resettling new arrivals have seen their budgets collapse, leading to layoffs, closed offices and canceled services.
That, of course, will make it harder to restore refugee resettlements in the future since the programmatic infrastructure itself would need to be revived too.
If you hear an evil cackle from the East, it’s probably emanating from Miller’s office.
Scott Martelle, who joined the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board in 2014, is a veteran journalist and author of six history books.