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Expert Discussion: President Donald Trump and the Refugee Crisis

As the U.S. presidential election nears, we asked four experts how a Trump presidency would shape America’s policy towards refugees and impact global efforts to address the refugee crisis.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Concord, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. AP/Chuck Burton

It has been a bruising election season in the U.S. Among the many bitter debates dividing the presidential candidates and the country is America’s policy on immigration and refugees.

The person elected to be the next U.S. president will have significant say in regard to these policies. He or she will also impact international efforts to address the record number of people displaced from their homes.

The U.S. is currently the largest single donor to the U.N. refugee agency, runs the world’s largest refugee resettlement program and in September led a global summit to encourage more countries and companies to pitch in resources and change policies on refugees.

To better understand what is at stake, we asked four experts to weigh in on how the leading presidential candidates would shape U.S. immigration and refugee policy, as well as global efforts to address the refugee crisis.

They explored the role of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton here.

Now we turn to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has pledged to deport undocumented immigrants, temporarily ban Muslims and people from “terrorist” countries from the U.S. and block Syrian refugees from the country.

We spoke to Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications and public affairs at the Migration Policy Institute. Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Jessica Brandt, associate fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Michelle Mittelstadt: Trump is speaking to parts of the American electorate that are unsettled by the significant levels of immigration that have occurred in recent decades and the rapid societal change brought by such increased diversity. His focus is enforcement-minded, prioritizing the construction of border walls, stepped-up deportation of unauthorized immigrants and increased vetting of would-be immigrants and refugees. He also appears to be voicing support for limits on legal immigration by suggesting it needs to follow “historical norms.”

At the international level, Trump, who has evidenced little support for NATO and other multilateral organizations and has expressed significant concern about the U.S. taking in more refugees, would appear to be far less interested in forging multilateral solutions or signing on to global compacts on migrants and refugees.

Lavinia Limon: I’ve been working with refugees for 43 years through Republican and Democratic administrations, and I’ve never ever seen refugees and immigrants as under attack as they are in this campaign by Mr. Trump. I think it’s very divisive and it’s very frightening for refugees and immigrants. It started with the Muslim ban, and then saying that we’re not going to bring any refugees from “terrorist” countries, and now he’s talking about extreme vetting. I don’t think he really understands how extreme the vetting is now – refugees are the most scrutinized people coming to the U.S. But he is echoing a lot of the anti-refugee resettlement voices online.

Samah Hussein, 13, and Abdulraheem Qadour, 11, study on their laptops in a class with many refugee children at Cajon Valley Middle School in California, Oct. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Christine Armario)

Samah Hussein, 13, and Abdulraheem Qadour, 11, study on their laptops in a class with many refugee children at Cajon Valley Middle School in California, Oct. 4, 2016. (AP/Christine Armario)

I think he doesn’t know what it means for the U.S. to be the leader internationally – on so many levels, but in my little world, on the issue of refugees and how the world should be treating them. If we stop resettlement, we will lose standing among other leaders and other nations. How can we weigh in on what Jordan or Turkey is doing when we’re not doing our part? This country was founded on the principle that we are the place where people fleeing persecution can come, and where freedom is maybe the one thing we can all agree on. If we turn our backs on our own legacy, we give permission to leaders in other nations that may not have that kind of history.

Jessica Brandt: Donald Trump has repeatedly advocated for broad restrictions on Muslim immigration to the U.S., calling Syrian refugees “a great Trojan horse.” Such a measure would hobble its refugee resettlement program. That would make the United States a bystander in a global crisis that calls out for leadership; it would strain the trans-Atlantic alliance, strengthen the forces breeding disunity within Europe and deny a needed form of support to fragile front-line states struggling to cope.

Michael Rubin: Trump’s deference to dictators – be they in Syria, Turkey or Russia – may convince them that they can commit atrocities without consequence. This might have the net effect of increasing refugee problems. And, because stemming immigration has been such a central part of his populist appeal, the willingness of a Trump White House to address refugees beyond basic provision of aid seems unlikely.

The discussion has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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