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Immigration, Refugees, and American Foreign Policy

The first days of the Trump administration have brought significant changes to the focus and direction of immigration and refugee policy. The administration has broadened the priorities for enforcement, asked for a plan to build a wall on the southern border, temporarily suspended refugee settlement, and suspended visas to nationals of several countries. How are these actions reshaping the U.S. immigration and refugee system and what effect will this have on American foreign policy and national security? Join us BY PHONE for a discussion with three top experts.

Date & Time

Mar. 30, 2017
10:00am – 11:00am ET


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The Takeaways

Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute, was joined by Robin Simcox from the Heritage Foundation, Joseph Cassidy from the Wilson Center, and Doris Meissner from the Migration Policy Institute to discuss refugees and immigration. Their conversation ranged widely, from immigration enforcement tactics within the United States to refugee situations across Europe, and ultimately explored the nature of national borders in the modern era.

The experts began by reviewing President Trump’s three executive orders on immigration and refugees. Doris Meissner identified the assertions that the new administration uses to justify these orders -- “assertions that border security is critical for national security, that aliens entering illegally are a threat to national security, and it states that the recent surges of illegal immigration place a strain on resources and are overwhelming the enforcement agencies.” These new positions also manifest as substantive changes from the previous administration. “The difference between this deportation stance and what has been the case in the prior administration,” says Meissner, “is that this order calls everyone subject to removal, whereas the Obama administration policy designated only recent crossers and those who had committed a crime as subject to deportation.”

These policies are not happening in a vacuum. Meissner mentioned popular reaction to the orders, and pointed out a topic worth particular attention. “The other thing I think to watch very carefully for is how the administration messages these issues,” she says, referring in part to VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement). “We know of course that foreign-born people commit crimes at significantly lower levels than the general population, but the selective use of information about spectacular cases -- and there certainly are spectacular cases -- could very much be a kind of information and messaging initiative that is not supported by significantly changing numbers, but that creates a very different view of people who are foreign-born within the country.”

Robin Simcox helped place these issues of national borders in a cultural context. Immigration, refugee resettlement, and border management are not merely political matters; they also involve a popular-elite divide and social dynamics beyond the obvious policy, especially in Europe. “When it comes to Trump’s travel executive order, which has been the most controversial in Europe for sure, Western European governments have no enthusiasm for doing anything similar. … However I would just like to highlight the disparity that I think exists between the public and the politicians on this and other immigration issues.” A survey of persons across Europe demonstrated the concern about immigration, with respondents asked whether Europe should ban all entry from Muslim-majority countries. “On average, 55% said that it should and only 20% disagreed. That’s higher in Europe than it is in America,” says Simcox.

Those numbers have been borne out in European elections, with dynamics in French and Swedish politics as notable examples. Populist support for border issues demands some serious consideration, says Simcox: “I think you can either choose to believe that the majority of Sweden has become racist over night, or you can take seriously the message across the West that the way this issue is being managed is currently unsatisfactory.”

Present systems for handling border movements, both nationally and internationally, faced criticism from around the table, for being out-moded, poorly planned, or just not enforced. Doris Meissner described how members of congress were already taking a hard look at proposals for the border wall, given the data: “The decrease in apprehensions at the border has been historic, starting 8 or 9 years ago, and seems to be continuing. How do you justify the need for billions of dollars of expenditure on a wall as against those continually decreasing apprehensions? That’s the question that Congressmen are asking.” But refugees and immigration do not hinge around a single policy like the wall -- international norms and institutional construction also bend patterns of migration. “Refugee law is at this stage kind of old; the Refugee Convention dates from 1951, and in some ways it’s not helpful in addressing some of these long-term, new concerns,” says Joseph Cassidy. The order currently in place has plenty of problems: “we have a system that’s set up in place to provide bad incentives -- so, incentives for risky migrations, incentives for people smuggling and trafficking in persons.” These systems contribute to the concerns that particular policies like the wall would attempt to address.

Despite the many problems and complexities, the panelists still presented clear and defined recommendations for tackling these issues in the future. The biggest pieces of the puzzle are awareness and clear-sighted engagement. “I think it’s important that we don’t dismiss security concerns that Americans have on this issue, because they’re not entirely illegitimate,” argues Simcox. “It’s wrong to pretend that immigration from Syria or Yemen, for example, presents exactly the same challenges as immigration from say New Zealand; this terrorism issue is not an invented one.” Cassidy echoed this need for cognizance, especially about countries’ inevitable interconnectedness: “we need to be aware that our countries are not immune to the world’s problems -- so, terrorism, disease, economic dislocation, political paralysis, those are not problems or challenges that stop at borders; we can’t wall them all out.”

So what is the next step? Cooperation and organization, Cassidy argues. “We need to engage people in Western democracies about these technocratic reforms and build broad, bipartisan coalitions to support them,” says Cassidy. “That’s one of the strengths of the Wilson Center: we look for these solutions and we try to bring together coalitions to implement them.” 

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