A White House aide close to senior policy adviser Stephen Miller who has advocated strict limits on immigration into the U.S. has been selected for a top State Department post overseeing refugee admissions, according to current and former State officials.
Andrew Veprek’s appointment as a deputy assistant secretary in State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) is alarming pro-immigration activists who fear President Donald Trump is trying to effectively end the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Current and former officials also describe Veprek’s appointment as a blow to an already-embattled refugee bureau. Trump has has made clear his disdain for liberal immigration policies, and the bureau has been adrift under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — even as a record 65 million people are displaced around the world due to war, famine and other calamities.
The bureau's website says that it "provides aid and sustainable solutions for refugees, victims of conflict and stateless people around the world, through repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in the United States." It adds that the bureau "also promotes the United States' population and migration policies."
Veprek is a Foreign Service officer detailed to the White House, which listed him as an "immigration adviser" in a 2017 staff document. He has worked closely there with Miller and the Domestic Policy Council, according to a current State official and a former one in touch with people still serving in the department.
In interagency debates, some administration officials have viewed Veprek as representing Miller's hard-line views about limiting entry into the U.S. for refugees and other immigrants.
Veprek played an influential role in Trump administration's December withdrawal from international talks on a non-binding global pact on migration issues. He also argued in favor of dramatically lowering the nation's annual cap on refugee admissions, the current and former officials said.
“He was Stephen Miller’s vehicle,” the former State official said. The current official predicted that some PRM officials could resign in protest over Veprek’s appointment.
"My experience is that he strongly believes that fewer refugees should admitted into the United States and that international migration is something to be stopped, not managed," added another former U.S. official. The official added that Veprek's views about refugees and migrants were impassioned to the point of seeming "vindictive." Veprek’s appointment as a deputy assistant secretary is unusual given his relatively low Foreign Service rank, the former and current official said, and raises questions about his qualifications. Such a position typically does not require Senate confirmation.
“On the positive side, one would hope that an appointee with limited experience would come into the job with a willingness to learn from professionals who have decades upon decades of experience,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former assistant secretary of state for the PRM bureau.
He added, however, that he was “deeply concerned” given Veprek’s relationship with Miller and the Domestic Policy Council.
The White House referred questions to the State Department, but State spokesmen did not immediately respond. Veprek did not respond to emails seeking comment.
In his final years in office, as the scale of the global migration crisis became increasingly clear, former President Barack Obama raised the number of refugees the U.S. was willing to accept to 110,000 from 70,000. The Trump administration, however, lowered that cap to 45,000 a year. In reality, the pace of refugee admissions under Trump has slowed down so much that fewer than half that number of refugees are expected to be resettled to America.
An International Rescue Committee analysis found that the number of Muslim refugees in particular has fallen under Trump. While in fiscal 2017 around 48 percent of refugees admitted to the U.S. were Muslim, on Trump it’s on track to being 13 percent, according to an IRC report in late January. During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims being allowed to enter the United States.
For many years, the U.S. refugee program had strong bipartisan support. Lawmakers viewed it as an example of America’s generosity and a way to garner global good will. But that changed during the 2016 presidential campaign after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, which came as Europe was dealing with a huge inflow of Syrian refugees.
Trump and other GOP presidential candidates began casting refugees as a potential source of terrorism. Democrats argued that refugees are heavily screened before being allowed to migrate to the U.S. and that instances of terrorism connected to refugees are vanishingly few.