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Is Trump’s refugee policy really so extraordinary? The walk isn’t, but the talk is.

- October 26, 2018

From its controversial separation of migrant families at the southern border to drastic cuts in the number of asylum seekers accepted, the Trump administration’s policies toward  immigrants and refugees have been widely criticized by international human rights groups and domestic political opponents alike.

How much do these policies actually differ from those of previous administrations? Not as much as you might think. Many presidents have endorsed similar policies that limited or blocked those seeking safety and freedom.

While Trump has increased restrictions, the most dramatic changes from the White House have been in rhetoric. Previous administrations’ policies on refugees and immigration were at least somewhat mitigated by a desire to appear consistent with American values. Trump’s tough talk represents an important departure with serious consequences.

The current refugee situation

The Refugee Act of 1980 created a process for refugees abroad to apply for entry to the United States. Today, the number of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide is at a post-World War II high. The demanding application process includes a rigorous security check that can take up to two years. Even those approved for entry might then continue to wait for years because of the limited number of entry slots.

Last month, the Trump administration announced that it would decrease the number of admitted refugees to 30,000 in the coming year, after already making a nearly 50 percent reduction from the Obama administration’s final year in office. In his first week in office, Trump issued Executive Order 13769 banning entry to the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, suspending entry for Syrians and prohibiting all other refugees from entering the United States for 120 days. He subsequently issued a get-tough policy for residents who entered the country illegally, with no leniency for their U.S.-born children.

The Trump administration is also denying asylum seekers their right to a hearing and narrowing the justifications to apply. Refugees International, a highly respected advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO), graded the Trump administration’s refugee policy an “F.”

How unusual is this policy?

While Trump might be the first to get an “F” in recent memory, most presidents get no more than a passing grade. The United States played a major role establishing rights for the forcibly displaced, but it also has been a serial violator of those rights. Although conservatives accused Obama of opening the border, refugee advocates said that he was not doing enough.

When the Syrian war erupted and millions fled, the Obama administration’s ceiling for refugee admission remained the same from 2013 to 2015. Despite increasing that ceiling each following year, critics claimed that this was too little, too late. And during his first term, President Bill Clinton continued President George H.W. Bush’s policy and turned back Haitians on the high seas in violation of their internationally defined basic rights.

But Trump’s policies are intended to actively discourage and deter refugees and asylum seekers. Vice President Pence recently told Latin American leaders that they needed to police their people and keep them from heading north. Trump has repeatedly demonized refugees and immigrants alike, from his first campaign speech warning that Mexican drug dealers, criminals and rapists were flooding the border to his recent pledge that the United States would not be turned into a “migrant camp.”

How does the United States compare with the rest of the world’s treatment of refugees?

U.S. policies are not all that exceptional. Most states barely get a passing grade on refugee policy. When states created international refugee and asylum laws after World Wars I and II, they were not motivated by compassion. Instead, the U.S. and European governments saw a major potential source of instability. Accordingly, they adopted some common rules for handling forced migration and embraced the idea of burden sharing.

But states have not been expected or obligated to comply, often breaking promises on the grounds that they cannot bear the burden. The Western response to the Syrian refugee crisis is exceptional only in terms of the scale, not attitude or policies. European states have created detention centers, more like prisons, across the southern and northern Mediterranean.

Australia has received considerable criticism for detaining hundreds of refugees on the island nation of Naru and the Papua New Guinea island of Manus, where, for many, suicide is the only way out. Italy has sailed into the high seas, not to greet those in dangerous makeshift rafts trying to reach  European shores, but rather to turn them back to Libya.

States that fail to honor basic rights can expect to be roundly criticized by the international community but rarely suffer any real consequences, if only because their critics rarely have a much better track record.

Nor are there many incentives for government leaders to change. There is little evidence that Trump has paid a price for his attitude and policies; indeed, he seems to be politically rewarded for his stance. In contrast, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel took in nearly 1 million people in 2016, she earned applause from NGOs and refugees around the world, but the policy and perceived burden on Germany has led to a fall in her domestic popularity and a rise in right-wing extremism.

What might change refugee policies?

With such political incentives, what keeps states from a race to the bottom? States worry that refugee movements might cause regional and international instability, and they agree that something must be done. States also often care about their reputation as being civilized and compassionate, with refugee policy serving as a measure of their humanity. To the extent that states care about what others think of them, they will usually try to avoid censure.

But states and their societies also pay attention to their refugee policies when those are viewed as inconsistent with their identities. States have narratives about who they are. Merkel’s 2016 decision was informed by the belief that Germany had a special debt because of the Holocaust. Israel’s debate about its treatment of African refugees is tied to the Jewish people’s experience of centuries of forced displacement.

Likewise, the United States has a narrative of itself as a “shining city on a hill,” a defender of liberty and a home for the oppressed. Although its government repeatedly acts contrary to that self-image, it nevertheless insists that these values retain their aspirational pull, avoiding a completely closed-door policy.

With an American president who no longer pays lip service to these values, what now keeps the door from being sealed shut?

Michael Barnett is a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. His most recent book is “The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews” (Princeton University Press, 2016).