Australian diplomats in Washington face an unenviable assignment: to convince the incoming Trump administration that more than 1000 refugees on Manus Island and Nauru should be resettled in the United States. While the Australian government wants the planned refugee resettlement to occur, circumstances will force it to consider the importance of this issue relative to many other topics needing discussion with the new administration.
The refugee resettlement deal, announced by the Turnbull government and Obama administration after November's presidential election, faces growing opposition among members of Mr Trump's party. Three congressional Republicans have already stated their opposition to the deal. If more Republicans express similarly critical views in coming days and weeks, it will become increasingly difficult for Mr Trump to carry out an Obama-era agreement that seems at odds with his comments on refugees and Muslim immigration.
Brian Babin, a hard-right Texas congressman and member of the House Freedom Caucus, said he was "confident President-elect Trump will do everything in his power to put an immediate stop" to a refugee deal he described as "madness". It is improbable that Babin, a junior member of Congress first elected in 2014, was foreshadowing the internal thinking of incoming Trump administration officials who are invariably focused on other priorities.
Of more concern are the other outspoken opponents of the deal: Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Bob Goodlatte, influential Republicans who have spent several decades in Congress. Grassley last year blocked the nomination of Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, by refusing to hold a hearing in his committee, and will shepherd Trump's yet-to-be-announced nominee through the confirmation process. Trump's advisers will be paying close attention to Grassley and Goodlatte, because of their seniority and importance to the incoming administration as the respective chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees.
Grassley and Goodlatte penned a joint letter to the Obama administration's Secretaries of State and Homeland Security in November criticising the refugee deal. They were specifically concerned that many of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru were from "countries of national security concern" [including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq] as well as countries [Iran and Sudan] officially designated by the State Department to be State Sponsors of Terrorism.
So if the Trump administration were to keep the deal in its current form, it could face considerable public backlash from Republicans in Congress, like Babin, who said the "import of dangerous refugees into the US" was "exactly what the American people soundly rejected" by electing Donald Trump. Additionally, slow security vetting conducted by Homeland Security officials – who are not expected to arrive in Nauru until February – will ensure that any resettlements would occur on Mr Trump's watch.
It therefore seems unlikely the refugee resettlement will proceed as planned under the Obama administration. The Trump administration is likely to revisit the deal's timeline and substance.
Australia will in all likelihood be asked to do much more than foot the bill for vetting and resettling the refugees in the United States, and accepting US-controlled refugees from Central America into Australia as currently planned will do little to assuage the new administration. A new commitment could be needed on one of Trump's priorities, such as increased Australian engagement in the fight against ISIS. In these circumstances, the Trump administration could sell the resettlement as a pre-done agreement and point to an enhanced Australian alliance commitment. Security concerns could be alleviated by references to comprehensive vetting by Homeland Security officials and Australia's strict standards on border control.
However, this issue has the potential to obstruct Australian efforts to build relationships in the new Washington. Australia's first act with the Trump administration might be a request for a favour that the new President may be unwilling to oblige on.
A final scenario is that this becomes a totemic issue due to Trump's focus on immigration and ISIS. If several more Republicans in Congress, especially the senior and influential types, speak out against the deal then its fate may be sealed. As President, Trump can unilaterally scrap the deal without congressional approval. (Professor Niels Frenzen, an immigration expert at the University of Southern California school of law, notes that overseas refugee admissions are "pretty much subject to the unfettered discretion of the President".) Such a rejection would be humiliating and problematic for Australia, a loyal US ally, and dominate evolving discussions of the alliance.
The Australian government will want to see obligations honoured, and a speedy resolution to what is a contentious issue in Australian domestic politics. But it must also consider where this issue ranks in the hierarchy of Australian priorities in its relationship with the United States. The unlikeliest of issues is shaping as an early test of Australia's relationship with a new American President.
Originally published on The Australian Financial Review.