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Expert Discussion: President Hillary Clinton and the Refugee Crisis

As the U.S. presidential election nears, we asked four experts how a Hillary Clinton 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
Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally in Winterville, N.C., Nov. 3, 2016. AP/Andrew Harnik

When American voters go to the polls to elect a new president, their choice impacts people all over the world. That includes refugees.

The U.S. has played a significant role in international efforts to protect refugees. The country is the largest single donor to the U.N. refugee agency, runs the world’s largest refugee resettlement program and recently hosted a summit at the U.N. encouraging countries and companies to do more to tackle the record numbers of displaced people worldwide.

The next U.S. president has considerable powers to stop, maintain or accelerate these policies. Their decisions will affect not only refugees in America and but some 60 million displaced people worldwide.

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.

In our first story, we turn to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to introduce immigration reform during her first 100 days in the White House and supports accepting a greater number of Syrian refugees into 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: Clinton is speaking to immigrant communities that have long waited for overhaul of the immigration system and resolution of the fate of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. While she has not issued a detailed plan for reform of the legal immigration system, she has pledged to push for legalization for the unauthorized, a more coordinated federal effort on immigrant integration programs and policy, a less costly path to citizenship and increased resettlement places for Syrians and other refugees.

At an international level, while neither candidate has said much on the recent U.N. refugee summit or other international convenings, one could anticipate that Clinton would continue the internationalist stance of her predecessor, working through the U.N. to advance U.S. interests on migration and refugee issues.

Lavinia Limon: Secretary Clinton has already made clear she wants to expand the refugee resettlement program. The domestic refugee program has essentially had static funding for about 25 years, so we would be looking for her to bolster that funding goes to the states for refugees to get jobs, to learn English to get other social services. We think if she wins this election that the refugee program will be modestly expanded, and hopefully enhanced.

Parents pick up their children at Naranca Elementary in El Cajon, California, which has received a wave of Syrian refugees, Oct. 5, 2016. (AP/Christine Armario)

Parents pick up their children at Naranca Elementary in El Cajon, California, which has received a wave of Syrian refugees, Oct. 5, 2016. (AP/Christine Armario)

One of the efforts started under the Obama administration, that would continue under Clinton, is to get more nations involved in resettling refugees. The global summit on refugees that Obama held last month was a start in that direction. The goals of that summit were to increase refugee resettlement, increase the number of children in schools and the number of refugees that are working – all goals which I assume Secretary Clinton would continue if she were elected.

Given her time as secretary of state, she understands the global impact of the U.S. being a leader in terms of refugee assistance and resettlement, and I think she wants to build on that. We’d be looking for her to continue the work that Obama has begun around engaging more nations in providing more resources, but more importantly, providing rights, to refugees.

Jessica Brandt: Hillary Clinton says the U.S. “has to do more” to address the worst refugee crisis since World War II. She has characterized the Obama administration’s efforts to admit 10,000 refugees from Syria last year as “a good start” and advocated that the United States increase that number to 65,000 going forward, with a focus on admitting those who are most vulnerable. Such a measure would contribute to alleviating the humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing violence, especially in fragile front-line states, enable the U.S. to show solidarity within the trans-Atlantic alliance and affirm that America supports rights and refuge for those in need.

Demonstrating that kind of global leadership is important. For all its shortcomings, the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, reached in September by global leaders during their annual gathering at the United Nations, could provide an avenue for the next administration to encourage others to do more – particularly if it is strengthened. Increasing access to employment and education and building upon efforts to transition from humanitarian to development assistance should be priorities.

Michael Rubin: Clinton’s experience in the State Department gives her an understanding about how to activate the tremendous bureaucracy behind the U.S. government’s refugee relief programs. And she is likely to continue to welcome refugees – Syrians and others – into the United States. But, her plans to stem the flow at its source don’t go much beyond the rhetorical. It’s one thing to talk about a no-fly zone; it’s quite another thing to implement it. So long as the Syrian civil war continues and there is no deterrent to Syrian bombing of its own population, then don’t expect much difference from the Obama years.

The discussion has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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