I am a refugee. I come from a family of refugees, and I’ve dedicated my life to helping refugees. And I dream of a world where refugees don’t exist.
It might sound extreme, but it is achievable. And it starts with a figure: 0.04%. That’s the percentage of the global population that lives in the United States. It’s also the percentage of the refugees the US should welcome in the wake of any humanitarian crisis, wherever it takes place.
Refugees aren’t political props, and their fates shouldn’t be tied to the whims of our leaders. Sadly, the current administration has done just that. President Donald Trump has slashed the cap on the number of refugees we can admit to its lowest level in history, from 110,000 in 2017 to just 30,000 today. We’re on track to admit even fewer than that this year.
While past administrations have been more generous, the caps they set have been equally arbitrary — calculations based on politics, not reality, leaving millions of lives in limbo depending on who’s in charge.
Instead of punishing the people who come to our shores seeking safe harbor, our leaders should focus on preventing the crises that create refugees in the first place. By establishing a baseline of 0.04% — replacing arbitrary ceilings with a permanent floor — we can tie refugee policy to foreign policy and create a powerful incentive to prevent humanitarian disasters in the first place.
A comprehensive US strategy for addressing the global refugee crisis is long overdue. There are over 68.5 million refugees around the world today, the highest number since World War II. That includes orphans, widows, and victims of torture, rape, war, and terrorism — survivors of the ugliest atrocities humanity has ever known.
Yet for decades, US foreign policy has not only turned a blind eye to these people — it has actively created more of them.
In the Middle East, US wars and sanctions have displaced millions of Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians. The power vacuum we created in Iraq gave rise to ISIS, and it continues to destabilize the region. In Yemen, the US has supported Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign and launched drone strikes of its own, prolonging a war that has already produced nearly 200,000 refugees.
Careless US interventionism has destabilized the Middle East for decades. But sometimes inaction has been just as costly. In 2012, when Bashar al-Assad crossed President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” by massacring his own people with sarin gas, the US refused to take serious action. That abdication of responsibility was one of the more galling examples of Republicans and Democrats alike refusing to take a hard line against the dictatorship that has fueled the largest refugee crises in history.
Even the crisis at our own border has roots in US interventionism. For decades, US foreign policy propped up dictators like Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, creating legacies of violence and poverty in those countries that drive refugees north to this day.
Most recently, the US recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, exacerbating an ongoing crisis in that country. The United Nations reports that more than 5 million Venezuelans will have fled the resulting violence by the end of this year. Even as the US government seeks the ouster of Venezuela's president, it is refusing to offer asylum to Venezuelans seeking refuge here, much less 0.04% of them.
We live in a world of our own making. By committing to accept a fair share of refugees, US leaders will know that the decisions they make abroad will have real consequences at home. Then, if President Trump — or any leader — truly wants to reduce the number of refugees that come to our country, they will have to curb the violence that drives them to flee.
In short, the US needs some skin in the game.
Because the truth is, though the reason may be different, the US government and the people who flee here want the same thing: a world with fewer refugees. Too often, we forget that refugees, by definition, don’t come here because they want to. Take it from me: I’m a US citizen, and a patriotic one at that. After all, where else but here could a Muslim woman from Jordan marry a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest and raise three children together?
But I didn’t arrive here by choice. Like all refugees, I came to the US because I probably would have been killed if I hadn’t. Proud as I am to be an American, it pains me that I might never have a chance to take my wife and my kids to visit my childhood home.
In a perfect world, there would be no refugees for the US to take in at all. That isn’t the world we live in. But by committing to do our part — by tying our fate at home to our decisions abroad — the US can take a firm step toward creating that perfect world: one where people with my story don’t exist.