Sunday, December 23, 2018

Trump's Message to Refugees: Bah, Humbug!

      More than a few American churches are marking the Christmas season with a topical reminder that the child whose birth is being celebrated was himself a refugee, born two millennia ago to parents fleeing persecution by Judea's Roman client King Herod. The reminder comes against the backdrop of President Trump's determined efforts to pull the welcome mat that the United States has by law and custom offered to those seeking refuge in this land of the free and home of the brave.
      Trump's anti-refugee policies are doubly illogical, patently un-Christian, and flatly illegal according to rulings by two federal judges in separate cases in the past week. With refugee levels surging worldwide, the administration has already reduced the number of refugee admissions to fewer than half the number allowed in President Obama's final year in office and plans to reduce it further next year.
      Obama capped refugee admissions at 110,000 for fiscal 2017; the Trump administration lowered the number to 45,000 for fiscal 2018 and has announced a cap of 30,000 for the coming fiscal year. Whatever justifications Trump may have for trying to reduce migration into the United States, those caps show that refugees are a minuscule fraction of the overall number.
      Moreover, despite the political appeal of anti-immigration policies, the latest Census Bureau projections show that immigration is central to the population growth needed to keep the U.S. economy vibrant. With fewer births and more deaths, the Census Bureau reported last week [Dec. 19] that the U.S. population grew from 2017 to 2018 by less than 1 percent, the slowest year-to-year growth since 1937 as the country was still pulling out of the Great Depression.
      The Trump administration faced pushback on its refugee policies not only in the courts last week, but also on Capitol Hill. With Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at the witness table [Dec. 20] before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat, stoked up the heat by suggesting that Joseph and Mary "would have perished" under Trump administration's policies. Nielsen said she took "personal offense" from the question, but a friendly Republican congressman gave her the chance to insist that Mary and Joseph would be eligible for asylum under Trump's policies.
      Apart from the hypothetical question, the Trump administration is trying to rewrite policies to make it harder for would-be refugees to apply for asylum or to qualify for asylum. Before leaving office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a policy memorandum in June seeking to exclude domestic abuse or gang violence as bases for granting asylum. Sessions contended those grounds go beyond the five that Congress set out by statute: fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. But they are grounds cited by many, perhaps most, of the Central American refugees who trek northward to the U.S.-Mexico border. Domestic abuse, in particular, had been recognized as grounds for asylum as far back as the 1980s.
      Twelve would-be refugees filed a suit challenging the policy in federal district court in the District of Columbia and won a ruling last week [Dec. 19] countermanding what Judge Emmet Sullivan called an "unexplained change" contrary to law and unsupported by agency precedent. Sullivan's 107-page ruling in a case now styled as Grace v. Whitaker included among others the desperate story of the lead plaintiff, who fled an abusive husband after he threatened her and their children because of her indigenous heritage and evicted her from their home with assistance of local authorities.
      In a separate case, a federal judge in San Francisco has also blocked the administration's later move to deny asylum to any would-be refugees who enter the country illegally, other than at the overcrowded designated ports of entry. Judge Jon Tigar's 30-page ruling in East Bay Sanctuary Covenant v. Trump last week [Dec. 20] converted what had been a temporary restraining order against the Nov. 9 policy change into a permanent injunction based on a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the original order.
      Tigar noted that the administration's regulation contradicted a Refugee Act provision that a would-be refugee may apply for asylum upon arrival in the United States "whether or not at a designated port of arrival.” In its decision upholding Tigar's ruling, the Ninth Circuit noted in addition that a refugee treaty signed by the United States in 1951 prohibits imposing any penalty on a would-be refugee "on account of their illegal entry or presence."
      The Trump administration took its fight against Tigar's order to the Supreme Court, but the justices refused last week [Dec. 20] to step in. The administration asked the Court for permission to institute the policy pending a full trial and appeal. Four conservatives &#151 Thomas and Alito along with the two Trump-appointed justices, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh &#151 said they would have lifted Tigar's order, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined with the four liberal justices in denying the administration's plea.
      For Christians, the Bible teaches what Jesus would do, as He explained in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. "I was a stranger, and ye took me not in," Jesus says critically, in the King James Version. Trump's policies place him and his supporters with the goats, not the sheep: policies all the less fitting at this season of peace on earth and good will to all.

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