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Cokie and Steven Roberts: We should be saying, ‘Bring them here’

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

The virulent cries of “Send her back” echoing through President Donald Trump’s rally in North Carolina were far more than a racist chant aimed at Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before emigrating to the United States at age 12.

Those words, in all their nasty nativism, clearly summarize Trump’s official policy toward immigrants like Omar. The president and his allies often insist that they only reject lawbreakers — those who cross our borders illegally — but that’s flatly false. They are also slamming the door shut on sanctuary seekers who take entirely legal steps to get here.

This ruthless and relentless attack is Trump at his absolute worst, using poor and vulnerable immigrants as pawns in his re-election campaign.

If he truly understood this country, if he really appreciated our role in the world, if he genuinely promoted our best interests instead of our worst instincts, he would not encourage his supporters to scream, “Send her back.” He would lead a chorus of “Bring them here.”

In passing a resolution that condemned Trump’s toxic tantrum (with only a handful of Republican votes), the House of Representatives quoted the eloquent words of Ronald Reagan, who signed legislation legalizing millions of undocumented foreigners: “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.”

Asylum-seekers are immigrants who apply for protection after reaching American territory; refugees are forced to leave their home countries because of serious threats to their lives or freedom. Both are well-established, internationally recognized concepts, and both are under fierce assault by this White House.

Just last week the administration issued an order saying it would not grant asylum to any immigrant who had passed through a third country, like Mexico, to reach America. “The rule, if upheld, would effectively eliminate asylum for those at the southern border,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told The Associated Press. “But it is patently unlawful.”

Trump tried a similar ploy last year, denying sanctuary to any immigrant who did not cross the border at an official transit point. That maneuver was blocked by federal district Judge Jon S. Tigar, who wrote, “Whatever the scope of the president’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.”

The administration has succeeded, however, in creating a process that sends asylum-seekers back to Mexico to await a hearing on their appeal. It has also tightened the standards for eligibility so stringently that far fewer appeals succeed. Last year only about 8% of asylum applications were approved, down from 23% during Barack Obama’s first year in office.

Charles Tjersland Jr., an asylum officer charged with enforcing the Trump policy, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post describing the process as “a sick joke.” The standards the applicants must meet are “ridiculously narrow,” he wrote, and as a result, “An asylum system that was originally designed to ensure migrants are safe from harm now seems set up to turn away as many people as possible.”

Trump is also determined to turn away as many refugees as possible. President Obama set an annual goal of admitting 110,000 refugees during his last year in office, but Trump has so strangled the system that only 22,500 refugees made it to America last year, and for the first time, another country, Canada, admitted more refugees than the U.S.

Politico reports that anti-immigrant crusaders within the administration want to cut the refugee quota to zero in the fiscal year starting in October. That probably won’t happen, mainly because of fierce opposition from the Defense Department, but drastic reductions — and a devastating blow to the entire refugee resettlement system — are almost certain.

“In the long term, it would mean that the capacity and the ability of the United States to resettle refugees would be completely decimated,” Jen Smyers of the Church World Service, one of nine agencies that place refugees in communities around the country, told Politico.

Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state for refugee issues, said in the Catholic News Service: “It’s pretty clear the Trump administration is trying to drive the U.S. refugee program into the ground.”

This is a tragedy on every possible level — a stain on our national honor and a self-inflicted wound that deprives the American economy of newcomers who “continuously renew and enrich our nation.”

Bring them here.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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