Written by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher
Chhaya Chhoum’s journey to the Bronx began in the forced labor camp where the Khmer Rouge, during its genocidal rule in 1970s Cambodia, had forced her parents to wed.
Her mother, who was 18, fled with her family, carrying her infant through jungle trails to refugee camps in Thailand. But the camps offered neither safety nor a future. So the family began a second journey: applying for refugee resettlement in the United States.
By the time they were brought to New York, Chhoum had spent almost seven years in the camps.
The family thrived in the Bronx. Her mother became a mental health worker, a leader in the community. And as an adult, Chhoum founded an organization, Mekong NYC, that provides services for Southeast Asian refugees and their families.
“I am as Bronx as it gets, as you probably can tell by my accent,” she said. “That’s the whole of me: refugee, child of refugees and raised in the Bronx.”
But stories like Chhoum’s may soon become far rarer. The White House is considering plans to slash refugee resettlement numbers to a fraction of historic levels or even to zero, all but ending the program.
The modern refugee system emerged after World War II, when the United States and its allies resettled hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting. Since then, it has played a central role in American foreign policy, drawn from the lesson that mass displacement can provoke even graver crises.
Refugee resettlement operates differently than other kinds of immigration. It is designed to maximize benefits to refugees and the communities that host them while minimizing burdens and risks.
The process is tightly controlled, with refugees undergoing a screening process that can take years before they are allowed into the United States. It focuses on keeping families together, as well as placing them in communities that want to take them in and are equipped to do so.
Refugee flows peaked in 1980, with over 200,000 resettled that fiscal year. Since then, annual caps have hovered around 70,000. The Trump administration, after slashing that limit to an all-time low of 30,000, is considering proposals to cut it to 15,000, 10,000 — or zero.
“Generations and generations are going to be impacted by this,” Chhoum said. “In a refugee camp, there’s no imagination. And I fear that will have multigenerational impact.”
Why the US embraced refugees
Though the formal refugee program began in 1980, the practice dates to the aftermath of World War II, which offered the world a series of hard lessons, and the motives were varied.
One was a sense of moral obligation, rooted in regret over the United States’ having refused entry to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.
But another was practical.
The war had displaced millions into sprawling camps and urban squalor, creating the conditions for future cycles of unrest and conflict. Resettling them was seen as a way to head off social tensions in Europe and alleviate pressure on still-fragile European governments.
Refugee resettlement has since become a cornerstone of the global order. It is intended to help prevent regions that are emerging from conflict, like Southeast Asia in the 1980s or the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, from falling back into turmoil.
“The refugee program matters both because of its humanitarian role and because of its strategic importance,” said Nazanin Ash, the vice president for global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. “Because poorly managed refugee crises beget greater regional instability.”
The program was designed to give governments close control over arrivals, allowing them to select precisely whom to bring in, when to bring them and where to place them. Once the refugees have arrived, resettlement programs can manage their integration.
Among all forms of humanitarian immigration to the United States, refugee resettlement comes closest to what skeptics of immigration often describe as their ideal. Families must apply while still overseas. Applicants are heavily vetted. They must wait in line.
It is the near-inverse of the process for asylum-seekers like those arriving at the southern border.
Under US and international law, anyone can request asylum; if they meet the definition, they are entitled to protection. Asylum-seekers’ numbers and timing are dictated by need and circumstance, not carefully planned policies.
And the numbers of people who can seek asylum — or be granted it — will not be affected by proposed cuts to the refugee resettlement program, though the Trump administration has also moved aggressively to discourage them, too.
“It’s not about immigrant versus refugee,” Chhoum said. “But being a refugee really isn’t a choice. And a government like the United States does have a choice.”
Resettlement as foreign policy tool
Every year, the United States announces the number of refugees it plans to host. It works with international agencies, particularly in the United Nations, to decide which displaced populations are most in need. They’ll vet the applications, nominating the most qualified people. Then the United States screens them, doing interviews and lengthy background checks. Approval typically takes years.
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees are eligible for resettlement. The program gives priority to the family members of refugees who are already in the United States, and to people regarded as particularly vulnerable.
Typically, they will have been displaced by war or persecution. Many will be in overcrowded camps, unable to work or return home. Some will still be pursued by militias or governments who wish them harm. Their host country will often be overwhelmed, unable to absorb or care for the refugees within their borders.
Refugee resettlement is often the only viable solution, said Ash, the International Rescue Committee official. Otherwise, camps just keep swelling for years or decades, becoming steadily unsafer for their occupants and imposing an ever-greater burden on their host countries.
Advocates of the resettlement program often cite the St. Louis, the ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe that the United States turned away, sending many back to their death. It is recounted as both moral parable and practical lesson: ad hoc responses to refugee crises can easily go wrong.
Institutionalizing the refugee system, with annual caps and a steady pipeline, creates a reliable process through which the United States can address crises as they emerge and relieve strain on host countries, Ash said.
It also allows the United States to push other countries, particularly in Europe, to set their own annual refugee quotas, spreading the responsibility among wealthy, stable nations.
A world without resettlement
As the United States curbs its refugee program, other governments, facing political pressures at home, are beginning to follow suit.
“What we see now is a global race to the bottom in meeting humanitarian obligations,” Ash said. “And it’s led by the US.”
Governments have also cut funding for international agencies that oversee refugees, even as their numbers continue to rise.
Resettlement programs can serve as political release valves, relieving enough pressure to make it sustainable for countries to host large refugee populations. “If we’re not working with these hosting countries, to remove some of that pressure, then we lose all negotiating power when it comes to dealing with the crisis,” Ash said.
The possible consequences are already coming into view. “What we see is an increasing trend of extreme pressure on refugees to return to unsafe and unstable regions,” Ash said, calling this a source of “tremendous risk to their safety and also to global security and stability.”
Countries that host refugees, like Pakistan and Turkey, seeing that Western governments are unlikely to resettle significant numbers, are pressuring, sometimes in effect forcing, families to return home.
Premature repatriations to places like Syria and Afghanistan risk creating further instability at a time when the United States is already struggling to extract itself from both conflicts. And forcibly returning refugee populations increases the risk that their home country will fall back into war, according to one World Bank study.