Battle emerges inside Trump administration over who controls immigration, refugees

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Photograph of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo.

When President Donald Trump spoke of the need to defend Western civilization in Poland last week, many saw an effort by him and some of his top White House advisers to redefine the mission of American foreign policy away from building relationships and spreading democratic principles, to a more protective stance drawing sharp lines between the United States and those perceived as threats.

One emerging flashpoint in that struggle is the internal administration debate over which part of the government should be in charge of deciding who gets into the United States.

Ever since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952, that mission has been charged to the State Department. Thousands of diplomats not only stamp passports and issue visas, but also craft policy and make recommendations about who gets to visit, work and seek refuge in the United States. That tradition has now come into question.

A document crafted by senior White House advisers, first reported by CNN, includes proposals to move the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration over to the Department of Homeland Security. White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, who helped craft the document, has reportedly been pushing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get “tougher” on immigration, vetting and refugee policy at the State Department.

One White House official cautioned that these proposals resulted from a brainstorming session focused on improving efficiencies across government and were far from being approved. Another White House official told me that if Tillerson doesn’t go along with changes that Miller and others in the White House are pushing the State Department to implement internally, the plan to strip Foggy Bottom of its role supervising these functions could gain traction.

Although the State Department’s internal reorganization plans are still under review, spokeswoman Heather Nauert told me that Tillerson believes the two bureaus should remain where they are and he views consular and refugee work “as essential to the Department’s mission to secure our borders and protect the American people.”

State stands to lose not only the 12,000-plus personnel billets associated with the work but also the more than $3 billion annually that consular fees bring in.

Tillerson’s position runs counter to the “Listening Report” he commissioned to review the State Department’s organizational structure, which actually recommended handing over all consular functions to DHS. The report, compiled by the private firm Insigniam, claimed such a move “would elevate security at our borders and remove a source of dissatisfaction and frustration.”

Tillerson also disagrees on this issue with his own nominee to become the head of consular affairs, Carl Risch, who once argued before Congress that visa issuance should be moved to DHS, testifying it is a law-enforcement process and “has nothing to do with diplomacy.”

Leading Democrats in Congress side with Tillerson and are prepared to fight the White House if it pursues the change. “I firmly believe the State Department should remain the face of America to the world and the entry point for foreigners traveling here, for consular activities and refugee resettlement,” said Benjamin Cardin, Md., ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Refugee resettlement is not an immigration program but, rather, a humanitarian program and a diplomatic tool, Cardin said. He called the White House proposal “disastrous.”

Cardin’s House counterpart, Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that placing these tasks in the hands of law enforcement “suggests that we view non-Americans as suspicious and maybe even a threat.” The Republican leaders of both Foreign Relations committees declined to state a position on the proposal.

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said there’s no evidence that shifting these functions from the State Department to DHS would make the American people safer or the visa process more efficient. DHS already plays a role in vetting visa applicants. Coons also pointed indirectly back to those in the White House who have been pushing anti-immigration policies. The proposal “appears rooted in a nativist opposition to the idea of legal immigration to the United States,” Coons said.

That nativist strain in the White House is represented by Miller, who was the principal author of Trump’s travel ban, which targeted six Muslim-majority countries, as well as of Trump’s speech last week in Poland, which cast the mission of U.S. foreign policy as one based on threats, not relationships.

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said. “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

Viewing immigration and refugee programs through that lens alone is the opposite of courage. Only through a humane, non-discriminatory approach, led by diplomats and integrated with the rest of American foreign policy, can the United States achieve long-term stability abroad and security at home.


Josh Rogin (Photo: The Washington Post)

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security.