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April 14, 2017

Religious Animus Also Underlies Trump’s Refugee Resettlement Reduction

Two weeks ago, a federal judge upgraded his temporary restraining order to a preliminary injunction, indefinitely blocking sections two and six of President Trump’s revised executive order on refugees and other travelers to the United States.The judge reasoned that the order likely violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it disfavors Muslims. While the president wields broad authority over immigration, he can’t contravene the Bill of Rights, including its protection of religious freedom.

Many have cited the six-country travel ban as proof of discrimination against Muslims, highlighting that the targeted countries are all more than 90 percent Muslim. Less noticed: the cap on refugee resettlement also demonstrates anti-Muslim animus.

Trump’s order calls for a massive cutback of the refugee resettlement ceiling—from 110,000 to 50,000—a historic low since the program’s establishment in 1980. At first glance, this reduction appears neutral. But given the geography of the world’s conflicts, most refugees originate from Muslim-majority countries, and more than half come from countries where Muslims represent between 93-99 percent of the population.

The cut in resettlement called for by President Trump would disproportionately harm Muslims. In FY 2016, Muslim refugees represented the largest religious group resettled in the United States, making up 46 percent of the resettlement population—a figure that has steadily risen over the last several years. In the first five months of FY 2017, this trend has continued. Moreover, Muslim refugees fleeing from the six travel ban countries accounted for 60 percent of all Muslim refugees resettled in the United States in FY 2016 (80 percent when Iraq was still listed on the ban), with Syrians alone representing 32 percent of this figure.

If the court’s injunction is lifted, these numbers demonstrate a particularly troubling situation for Muslim refugees. Given the administration's acknowledgment  that countries on the travel ban list could remain there indefinitely, in this case, even if resettlement were to resume, those seeking refuge from these Muslim-majority countries—where conflict and human rights abuses are the norm—would not be admitted into the United States, even if they have been vetted and selected for resettlement.

The revised order is, according to President Trump, a “watered-down version of the original” in that it no longer includes explicit reference to “religion” and “religious preference.” But these modifications do not change the order’s intended effect, which reflects the anti-Muslim hostility expressed by President Trump during his campaign. In calling for a ban on Muslims, he specifically cited the high numbers of Muslim refugees resettled in the United States as a “security” concern. He alleged that this could be “a more horrible version than the legendary Trojan horse ever was.” He claimed that “refugees from the Middle East” would try to “take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is.” Confronted with considerable backlash to his call for a “Muslim ban,” Trump revised his statements, strategically stating, “So you call it territories…I'm talking territory instead of Muslim.”

Over 40,000 refugees have been admitted this fiscal year, but 30,000 of those were resettled during the final two and a half months of Obama’s presidency. With the cap, President Trump would resettle at most about 20,000 refugees during the remaining nine and half months of the fiscal year, rather than the roughly 80,000 refugees he was slated to admit. If the court’s injunction is lifted, President Trump will in effect, slam the door on up to 60,000 of the world’s most vulnerable people, disproportionately Muslim, who otherwise would have been allowed to settle safely in the United States.

With worldwide displacement at a record high, now is not the time for the United States to turn its back on refugees, especially based on false claims that such actions will keep America safe. The United States has long been, as President Reagan fondly observed, “a land that welcomes people…and resettl[es] those who flee oppression.” Blocking refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people, especially when rooted in religious animus, could hardly be more antithetical to American ideals.