Thanks to Trump, Refugees Fleeing Authoritarian States Are No Longer Welcome

The United States has a long and proud tradition of refugee resettlement, especially for individuals fleeing authoritarian governments and failing states. In a 1981 speech on immigration, President Ronald Reagan remarked that “We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.” In stark contrast, by dramatically slashing refugee resettlement levels, President Donald Trump is greatly shrinking the United States’ capacity to extend this helping hand to oppressed peoples, including today those of Venezuela.

Following the end of the World War II, thousands of refugees fleeing persecution by communist governments in Europe and around the world were welcomed to a new home in the United States. When South Vietnam was overrun by the communist North in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were resettled here, many of whom had worked closely with the United States during the war and feared reprisal for doing so. In the 1990s, tens of thousands of refugees from the collapsing Soviet Union and war-torn Yugoslavia were resettled here, safe from political instability and ethnic violence. Welcoming these people to our shores was unambiguously the right thing to do, and these communities flourished in their new home. 

Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president retains the power to set the ceiling on refugee admissions for each fiscal year. Since 2000, the annual limit has hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 refugees per year. President Barack Obama announced an increase to 110,000 refugees for 2017, but this number was later reduced to just 50,000 by Trump.

For 2019, the limit has been further reduced to just 30,000, the lowest ceiling on refugee admissions ever set since the program was formalized into law. The annual refugee admissions ceiling is divided among five regions of the world. For FY 2019, 3,000 of the total 30,000 refugee admissions have been allotted to Latin America and the Caribbean. Through January, only 158 people from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been admitted to the United States.

The Trump administration hasn’t just slashed the cap levels on refugee resettlement. It isn’t even attempting to meet those limits, leaving thousands of refugee-admission slots unused every year. This inaction comes at a time when the United Nations estimates there to be over 25 million refugees worldwide in need of resettlement. Few examples come to mind of a more needless and depraved abdication of responsibility by an American president, the costs of which are borne by the world’s most vulnerable people.

Venezuelans in particular now are suffering. Millions have fled their country as political uncertainty and economic hardship have worsened since 2015. Venezuela’s neighbors have graciously accepted hundreds of thousands, even millions in the case of Colombia, of Venezuelans seeking economic and political security. Meanwhile, the number of Venezuelans admitted to the United States as refugees over the same timeframe is zero. 

Colombia is a country of 49 million people and has been able to accommodate over a million Venezuelans resettling or passing through the country. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the United States, a country of 328 million, is incapable of accommodating thousands of Venezuelans in need.

Until political stability, democracy, and economic growth can be restored in Venezuela, many of its people will continue to pursue economic and political safety elsewhere, and Venezuela’s immediate neighbors needn’t be the only ones to help. Lamentably, it appears that until Trump abandons his unfounded concerns about the security and economic implications of refugee admissions, the Venezuelan people, like so many others around the world today, will be left for someone else to aid. 

This U.S. policy is unfortunate not just on humanitarian grounds, but on economic grounds as well. Refugees have high rates of entrepreneurship and have played a key role in revitalizing communities across our nation where the population was falling. Refugees also pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report that the Trump administration intended to suppress. Reducing refugee resettlement only hurts our economy.

The president strongly decried Nicolás Maduro’s government and claimed solidarity with the Venezuelan people in his State of the Union address, but his refugee policy suggests that these are merely crocodile tears. Unless Trump and the GOP reverses its shameful course on refugee resettlement, the Venezuelans that have suffered under the socialist regime of Hugo Chávez and Maduro will be denied the same opportunity to thrive in a safe and secure home that was offered to so many others in the past. 


Donald J. Boudreaux is an economics professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program at GMU’s Mercatus Center. Jeffrey Mason is an MA fellow with the Mercatus Center. 

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