The US is Wrongly Fighting ISIS by Persecuting Refugees

America's flawed policy to curb refugee resettlement in order to fight ISIS needs a reset.
May 16, 2017, 3:50pm

This is an opinion piece by the International Rescue Committee.

The difference between campaign rhetoric and government policy reality could not be more stark for the early days of the Trump presidency. On its surface, the administration has presented one domestic and foreign policy priority that could unite the country and rally the wider world behind it: a campaign against violent extremism.

The error in this campaign has been a misguided obsession with one percent: the small fraction of global refugees lucky enough to have a chance to resettle in the US, and the tiny slice of the federal budget the country devotes to critical foreign assistance. All in all, the moves signal a retreat from the very fight they propose to take on. It says, "You are not welcome in America, and America won't help you where you are."


What is key now for the administration is to avoid scoring goals in its own net. Two policies, in particular, are germane to the campaign against ISIS. First, the attack on the refugee resettlement program, which is an American success story. Secondly, the proposed assault on the foreign aid budget, which is a guarantor of America's safety and an ambassador for its values.

On the home front, the inherently flawed policy to curb refugee resettlement in the US is on pause. The court's wise decision in Hawaii recognized that campaign rhetoric matters, rightly contaminating an attempt at refugee policy overhaul. The last two weeks saw continued litigation of this flawed policy in appeals courts. It has been well-reported that this policy and rhetoric fuels the sort of propaganda ISIS relishes, such as appearing to label 1.6 billion Muslims an unacceptable security threat. That undermines the administration's own priority to put an end to ISIS, which the IRC and the victims of terror we serve, also support. Our response to terrorism, which is the purported aim of the executive order, must then be strategic to avoid alienating allies and adversaries alike.

We universally agree that those who would try to reach America's shores with ill intentions should be stopped. This is where the administration is correct. What is sorely misunderstood is the rigor with which the United States already vets those who would seek to attain peace and stability here. It is a system that has been strengthened by Democrats and by Republicans, by hawks and by doves. It would be sensible to reassess the elements of that system in a changing world, and to do so with or without the ban should the threat be as critical as claimed. However, it should not be at the price of stopping and destabilizing a gold standard resettlement program.


Moreover, the ban poses serious difficulties to the low and middle-income countries already hosting 86% of the world's refugees. It was over a year ago that King Abdullah of Jordan -- a country hosting 660,000 refugees -- warned that "the dam is going to burst." It's hard to imagine what even scarcer assistance will mean for these states -- many of which are longtime American allies -- already shouldering a tremendous humanitarian burden.

Indeed, on the foreign front, the plans are stark. The Trump administration has floated a cut of roughly a third to the aid budget. It's an enormous cut for the world's largest humanitarian funder, and a worrying repudiation of the very concept of aid and forward-leaning diplomacy. Indeed, the proposed cutoff could not come at a worse time. Along with the ongoing conflicts and disasters displacing one person every 24 seconds, the IRC and the international community are gearing up for a historic response to famine conditions that threaten the lives of 30 million across Africa and Yemen. 250,000 lives -- more than the population of Salt Lake City, Boise, or Richmond -- were lost six years ago when the international community failed to muster the resources, will, and ability to respond to a comparable disaster in the Horn of Africa.

Sterile statistics translate into excruciating choices for the IRC and its clients about which needs will go unmet, which pleas will go unanswered.

The strategic relevance to the campaign against ISIS is that global threats flourish in the absence of the same critical services supported by aid: governance, rule of law, education and employment, food security, basic access to health, and more. The battle against extremism can only be won by defeating its drivers, and that cannot be done with drastic reductions in the very funds that support these efforts.

When Fallujah, Raqqa, or Mosul are retaken from ISIS, humanitarian workers like the IRC's are next to enter the scene, providing life-saving assistance and laying the groundwork for recovery, cohesion, government stability, and responsiveness. These cuts would deprive the military of the tools it needs to drive ISIS out and ensure it does not return -- a fact recognized by General Mattis, 121 retired generals and Rex Tillerson himself. If the three failed attempts to "break terrorism" by military means in Fallujah demonstrate anything, it is the necessary and equitable rhythm between military and humanitarian action. There is no short cut.

This administration was elected for its business acumen. It must understand that in abandoning America's role as both safe haven and safeguard the reluctance to pay upfront will result in crippling interest down the line. Defending this one percent, whether the high return investments on foreign aid or welcoming the world's refugees, must be part of America's defense strategy. It is a deal worth making.