In what may prove to be one of the most ironic moments of the Trump Administration (though it's early days still), the new guidelines for individual refugee resettlement were leaked today to VICE news. Among numerous other changes, they contain the following ominous phrase: "PRM and DHS/USCIS will work closely with UNHCR to ensure that, in addition to referrals of refugees with compelling protection needs, referrals may also take into account certain criteria that enhance a refugee's likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution to the United States."
What does this mean?
There are three ways someone can be a refugee in the United States. First, they can come to the US and claim asylum here. Second, they can be resettled as an individual referral by UNHCR (or occasionally an NGO or embassy) or third, they can be resettled as part of a group referral.
Under the current system for individual referrals, UNHCR selects candidates based on their urgent protection needs. Usually, this means that the refugee is facing serious threats to their life or safety in the refugee camp, or they are an unaccompanied minor, or the have an urgent health problem that cannot be addressed in the camp. The decision is made based on the refugee's needs, not the needs of the host state.
Group referrals are functionally different. For group referrals, UNHCR and member states usually negotiate in order to find the best possible outcome for all parties. Refugee needs are balanced against the priorities of the United States and the burden to host countries. For example, a mass influx of refugees into a single country, like Syrians to Lebanon or Rohingya to Bangladesh, will usually prompt donor countries to take a certain number not only to ensure better treatment for all refugees, but also to share the burden with host states. Group referrals may also be used to end "protracted" refugee situations, where refugees have been stuck in camps for decades with no solution.
There has already been reporting on the Trump Administration's decision to end group processing for Central American minors. There has also been reporting on the potential reduction of the cap to 45,000 places, though this cap must await input from Congress. For comparison, the Obama administration had hoped to increase the program to 110,000 places. Gone is the Obama administration's plans for a reserve of 14,000 places for any unforeseen emergencies.
Strange language also appears in the group designations for Burmese ethnic minorities in Malaysia (Chin, Mon and others) and Bhutanese in Nepal are to be wrapped up in 2018. What this means, exactly, is not clear, particularly given that UNHCR has cited resettlement needs for over 100,000 people. How resettlement of these groups will interact with the Rohingya refugee crisis is also not clear.
All in all, given Trump's campaign rhetoric, the document is not really a shock. While it marks a sharp decrease in admissions, this is a power of the President and the Administration is asserting its prerogatives according to how US citizens voted. Resettlement is a voluntary program and so far, Trump has not done anything truly revolutionary, like pull out of the 1951 Convention.
In both tone and substance, however, the document marks a sharp departure on refugee resettlement policy from that of the Obama administration. Besides the ominous language quoted at the top that makes it sound like State Department officials may become more involved in the selection of individual resettlement cases, the overall tone leaves much to be desired. Gone is any high minded language over the US's responsibilities or references to the "global refugee crisis." Gone is all discussion of expanding the resettlement program to new countries in an effort to further extend burden sharing.
But every UNHCR resettlement officer and probably many employees at PRM (or those that are still left) are probably wondering the same thing right about now. What does it mean that the US government will prioritize refugees who can "assimilate" into the US? English speakers? Christians? It's not clear, but it is ironic. Refugees have usually fled their countries due to racism, religious persecution and national persecution.
Now, they will face discrimination in the US resettlement program, discrimination that for the very vulnerable could be dangerous to their health or safety. Other refugees may feel pressure to convert to Christianity in order to qualify for the program. Desperate people will do desperate things. In fact, the more you think about what this sort of coercive policy might do to refugees, the more it begins to look a lot like the very persecution many refugees fled. Ironic.