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Stephen Miller Has Usurped Unprecedented Power From Congress Over the U.S. Refugee Program And Is Systematically Eliminating It

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Why It Matters and Why It’s Time For Congress To Exercise Its Broad Oversight Authority

A recent Vanity Fair article describes the destructive power that one man — Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller — has over long-standing U.S. refugee policy and the law.  

For almost 40 years, the law has clearly authorized a “permanent and systematic procedure” for refugee resettlement and assumes that each President would use that authority to administer a refugee resettlement program that recognizes the “historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including…admission to this country….”  Based upon the refugee resettlement numbers over the last 40 years, Republican and Democratic Presidents have done so for decades.

But, according to the article, Miller is intent on not only decreasing U.S. refugee resettlement, but possibly eliminating it by 2020.   

The law gives Congress broad power to hold the President accountable for a weak and decimated refugee program.  Yet despite Congress’s well settled authority Miller famously claimed to CBS’s John Dickerson, “Our opponents, the media and the whole world, will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”  

Brief Summary of the Refugee Act And Congress’s Powerful Oversight To Ensure The Spirit Of The Law Is Implemented By Each President

After many years of U.S. resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from around the world following World War II, the Vietnam War, and other conflict situations, the Congress established a “uniform” refugee program through the Refugee Act of 1980 (Act).  In it, “The Congress declares it is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including…admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States.”  

Furthermore, the Act created the first ceiling for the number of refugees — 50,000 — for fiscal years 1980 through 1982.  The Act also authorized a greater number for “unforeseen emergency refugee situation[s]” which grew the refugee ceilings for fiscals 1980 through 1982 from 50,000 to 231,000, 217,000, and 140,000, respectively.  The Act also established a system whereby future refugee ceilings would be set by the President, but only after a very unique consultation with Congress — a statutorily required meeting between Cabinet-level secretaries and members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees preceded by statutorily required information on the projected refugee plan for the next fiscal year.  This unprecedented, Congressionally-mandated requirement of consultation between high level officials and the Congress suggests Congress intended to maintain powerful oversight to ensure the spirit of the Refugee Act is implemented by each President.

Strategically Placed Political Appointees “Kneecap” Immigration and Refugee Programs With Little Congressional Oversight

Miller has strategically placed his ideological confederates in key administration positions, effectively avoiding Congressionally-mandated oversight over immigration and refugee programs.  According to Vanity Fair:

As Miller has shored up his influence in the West Wing, he has simultaneously broadened his leverage as his ideological allies secure critical positions across the government. At first, sources say, Miller focused his efforts on installing immigration hardliners at the White House, D.H.S., and D.O.J. “[He would place] a political [appointee] that was high up enough that they would know everything but not high up enough that they would be in the public spotlight or needing Senate confirmation.

Among Miller’s confederates is Gene Hamilton, who like Miller is a veteran of Jeff Sessions’s Senate office and was tapped early in the administration to serve in the somewhat nebulous role of counselor to John Kelly, then the Secretary of Homeland Security. (Hamilton took a role at D.O.J. after Kirstjen Nielsen was named as Kelly’s successor at D.H.S. ) During the refugee admissions debate last September, Hamilton was allied with Miller against then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice President Mike Pence, among others, including Elaine Duke, the No. 2 official at D.H.S. at the time….Other Miller allies reportedly include John Walk, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office and the son-in-law of Sessions; L. Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at D.H.S.; Dimple Shah, the deputy general counsel at D.H.S.; Chad Mizelle, the counsel to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at Justice; and Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who retired earlier this year.

Then came strategic appointments by Miller at the Department of State to effect refugee policy:

Miller’s foothold in Foggy Bottom [Department of State] is buttressed by two veterans of his influential Domestic Policy Council who have recently taken posts at State. John Zadrozny is expected to oversee refugee policy, at least in part, in his role as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, an office that developed outsized influence under Secretary Tillerson. And Andrew Veprek was named as the deputy assistant secretary of State in the refugee office. Given his relatively low foreign-service officer rank, Veprek’s appointment to the high-ranking post drew criticism and confusion. (A State Department spokesperson disputed this characterization.) The former administration official who worked on refugee policy suggested the ascendance of both men had less to do with their résumés than their ideological alignment with Miller. “Their sole qualification is their willingness to do anything to please Miller as members of the Domestic Policy Council and their only major interest is their anti-immigration agenda,” this person told me.

Severe Decreases in Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Admissions

Since the Refugee Act was enacted in 1980, the refugee ceiling and admission numbers have never fallen to levels advocated by Miller.  According to the Vanity Fair article, “‘Stephen and Hamilton and their compadres tried to drive that number way, way, way down,’ the former D.H.S. official explained, recalling that Miller and Hamilton sought to set the cap well below 45,000 refugees, ‘But cooler heads prevailed.’”  Now Miller is seeking a ceiling of 15,000 for the next fiscal year.  The article notes that the strategic placement of political appointees “bureaucratically kneecap[s] the refugee program [by] slowing down interviews…, undercutting [] staffing,…and complicating the vetting process.”  Therefore, in spite of this year’s 45,000 refugee ceiling the U.S. is on pace to admit only around 22,000 refugees this fiscal year, a number much lower than previous years, including the years following 9/11 when the refugee program was stalled for months as new security checks were implemented.

U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceiling and Annual Number of Admitted Refugees, Fiscal Years 1980 to 2017
Year Annual Ceiling Number of Admitted Refugees
1980 231,700 207,116
1981 217,000 159,252
1982 140,000 98,096
1983 90,000 61,218
1984 72,000 70,393
1985 70,000 67,704
1986 67,000 62,146
1987 70,000 64,528
1988 87,500 76,483
1989 116,500 107,070
1990 125,000 122,066
1991 131,000 113,389
1992 131,000 132,531
1993 142,000 119,448
1994 121,000 112,981
1995 112,000 99,974
1996 90,000 76,403
1997 78,000 70,488
1998 83,000 77,080
1999 91,000 85,525
2000 90,000 73,147
2001 80,000 69,886
2002 70,000 27,131
2003 70,000 28,403
2004 70,000 52,873
2005 70,000 53,813
2006 70,000 41,223
2007 70,000 48,282
2008 80,000 60,191
2009 80,000 74,654
2010 80,000 73,311
2011 80,000 56,424
2012 76,000 58,238
2013 70,000 69,926
2014 70,000 69,987
2015 70,000 69,933
2016 85,000 84,995
2017 50,000 53,716
Note: Data series began following the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. Includes Amerasian immigrants except in Fiscal Years 1980 to 1988. Data from the Department of State (DOS) Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) on refugee arrivals differ slightly from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics due to a different data collection approach.
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of WRAPS data from the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, available at http://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/.  https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-annual-refugee-resettlement-ceilings-and-number-refugees-admitted-united


Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice, said: 

In holding the power of the purse, the Congress has strong authority to hold the President accountable for most government programs, including the refugee program.  Unlike most other government programs, however, the Congress reserved for itself even more power — a very unique oversight tool of annual in-person and high-level consultation to ensure that the President maintains a generous refugee resettlement program.  It is time for Congress to vigorously exercise its powers to reverse the damage being done by Miller and his political appointees and to restore a historically generous refugee resettlement program.