RNC Spectacle Revealed Sheer Hypocrisy of Trump's Immigration Policy | Opinion

On the second night of the Republican National Convention, President Trump presided over a naturalization ceremony in which five women and men became American citizens. The ceremony has been roundly criticized both because it politicized the role of the president in a way no other president seeking reelection has done, and because it was officiated by the acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who the Government Accountability Office determined is serving in his role illegally without Senate confirmation. But the president also deserves criticism because the criteria he named in his short speech reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of his administration's immigration policy.

Since the Republican Party declined to adopt a platform—instead, passing a resolution to "support the president's America-first agenda"—Trump's remarks before the citizenship ceremony take on additional weight. By his stated values, the administration's highest priority should be immigrants who come to the United States as refugees. Instead, in the forty-year history of the federal resettlement program, no president from either party has ever curtailed refugee admissions like Trump.

Trump called the newcomers "men of women of the highest integrity" who "followed the rules," "obeyed the laws," "learned history," "embraced our values," and "went through a lot." His comments implied that other immigrants were not people of character, that they had cut in line or entered the country illegally, that they did not care about US history or embrace "our" values, and that they had taken the easy way in. This is not the first time the president has characterized immigrants using blatant stereotypes.

Though all immigrants to the United States deserve to be spoken of with dignity and respect, the values that Trump laid out seem to particularly apply to the conditions that refugees endure before resettling in the United States. What makes refugees from around the world similar is not their character but their circumstances. Whether they have languished for decades in a camp in Tanzania or recently fled the Burmese junta targeting Rohingya people, they have persevered under circumstances that most people in the world cannot imagine. The legal term "refugee" can only be used for people who have proven, in the language of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention in Geneva, that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group." Refugees are a special category of immigrant, different from asylum-seekers (who are in the process of asking for refuge) or economic migrants (who, like my ancestors and many others, come to the United States to seek out better economic opportunities).

Even before the latest attacks on the resettlement program under the Trump administration, or the worldwide pause in travel because of the pandemic, a miniscule portion of refugees—less than 1 percent—would ever have the possibility of coming to one of the countries that offer resettlement. To be considered for resettlement in the US, refugees undergo a rigorous vetting process that can often take several years. The process can be personally invasive and undignified, time-consuming and capricious. Our country routinely puts survivors of some of the worst humanitarian crises in the country in the position of arguing for their worth—they have to prove not only that they and their family members deserve safety but that they would be a good return on our national investment by becoming economic contributors to our society within weeks of their arrival.

Those of us who have spent any time with refugees will tell you—the remarkable thing is that they are, in fact, able to achieve these superhuman feats.

The very criteria that Trump used to describe the five new US citizens could easily be applied to resettled refugees—they have been proven to be people of integrity through multi-year, multi-agency security checks. They have followed every rule in order to be considered for resettlement in the first place; they are legal entrants to the country who come through a system that involves a number of organizations cooperating across international lines. They certainly embrace American values, but also understandably grieve the country they left behind—after all, the decision of whether to migrate or not was made for them when they fled the armies who burned their village or the regime that bombed their homes. No one can argue that refugees have not "been through a lot."

Presidents throughout history, no matter their political affiliation, have understood that refugees were a critical cornerstone of US immigration policy. In 1965, when he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: "those who seek refuge here in America will find it. The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld." In 1989, in his last address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan told the story of "refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America" who, when they saw a sailor on the carrier Midway, yelled out, "'Hello, freedom man'...that's what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood, again, for freedom." George H.W. Bush, who called resettlement a "purely humanitarian effort," raised refugee admissions up to 142,000 in 1993. Even when he halted immigration for a few weeks following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush resumed resettlement almost immediately with an admissions ceiling that did not go below 70,000.

By President Trump's values of integrity and perseverance, legality and resilience, there should be no higher priority for his administration than refugee resettlement. But instead, in each year's presidential determination at which he announces the admissions cap, Trump has dropped the number of refugees allowed to come to the United States to unprecedented lows—only 18,000 refugees in 2019. Because of the pandemic and other policies the Trump administration has put in place to thwart the resettlement process, the number of refugees who have actually arrived to the United States in 2020 has been significantly lower than that.

And yet, the number of displaced people in the world has reached a staggering, historic new high—80 million and climbing. In the face of humanitarian crises throughout history, every other president has responded as President Harry Truman did after World War II: "our plain duty requires that we join with other nations in solving this tragic problem." Airing the naturalization ceremony during the RNC was not just unprecedented because of the way Trump used it to politicize the office to support his campaign; it was unprecedented because it reveals, once again, that these values are not in keeping with the historic stance both parties have held toward immigrants throughout our history. As Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, states, "In recent times, refugee resettlement has become politicized and divisive. But this stands in contrast to a long history of broad bipartisan support – the U.S. has actually welcomed more refugees under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Accepting refugees fleeing violence and persecution is a measure of how inclusive we are as a nation and whether we live up to our legacy of being a beacon of freedom."

If his administration truly wants to admit newcomers to the United States who meet his stated criteria, Trump must live up to the values by which he praised the five new American citizens. He should set a significantly higher refugee admissions cap when the presidential determination is due on October 1. And he must stop targeting the refugee resettlement program, which is one of the legal avenues through which deserving people fleeing humanitarian crises are offered a safe haven in what he called "the greatest nation on the face of God's earth."

Jessica Goudeau is the author of After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America. Twitter and Instagram: @jessica_goudeau.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.