WASHINGTON — At his confirmation hearing for defense secretary on Tuesday, Mark Esper was repeatedly asked if he would stand up to President Donald Trump when necessary as well as follow a similar path as former defense secretary James Mattis.
Esper said again and again he would — and now his first chance to defend the Pentagon may be coming very soon.
At issue is a White House plan under consideration that would slash refugee admissions to nearly zero, as first reported by Politico.
Some reports say a modified version of that proposal would lower the numbers of refugee admissions to 3,000-10,000 people. The cap is now 30,000.
The issue is critical to the Pentagon because the refugee admittance system is the path used to help those nationals in countries such as Iraq who are at great personal risk for having worked with or provided assistance to U.S. military forces during invasions in their home nations.
For the current year, the State Department set a refugee cap of 30,000, a cut from the 45,000 of 2018. To date, about 11,000 refugees have entered the U.S. during 2019.
Refugee status differs from asylum status, although both roughly apply to individuals seeking protection. Asylum is sought by migrants who reach U.S. soil; refugee status is sought by migrants abroad.
Mattis battled immigration hardliners to keep the number higher for refugees seeking protection because of the need to provide entrance to the U.S. for Iraqi, Afghan and other nationals. A special immigrant visa program for Iraq expired in 2014.
Last September Mattis wrote to John Bolton, the national security adviser, to argue for the higher number.
“Over the last 17 years of war, numerous Iraqi nationals have risked their own lives and their families’ lives by aligning with our diplomats and warfighters providing essential mission support,” he wrote in the letter first published by Politico. “We owe them support for their commitment.”
Mattis also noted that making it easier for such individuals to enter the U.S. strengthens U.S. diplomatic and military efforts abroad. He also said those who come to the U.S have a higher enlistment rate in the military than U.S.-born citizens.
The immigration issues was one of several trenchant and timely questions Esper was not asked at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Esper’s nomination was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. He is waiting a Senate vote on his nomination, likely to occur next week. He was not available for comment on Friday.