The Trump administration announced on Thursday plans to slash its refugee admittance program by almost half next year, the lowest cap since the refugee system was created in 1980.
The White House said it would admit no more than 18,000 refugees for the next fiscal year, a drop from its current limit of 30,000 and a plunge from the 110,000 admitted in 2016 under President Barack Obama’s final year in office.
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Under the new cap, the State Department will reserve up to 5,000 slots for people fleeing their homes because of religious persecution. An additional 4,000 spots will go to Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military. People from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will be allotted up to 1,500 positions, and the remaining 7,500 refugees will come mainly through diplomatic referrals or for family reunification reasons.
The administration suggested that lowering refugee admission numbers was related to high migration anticipated at the southern border.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting Director Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement that the proposed refugee ceiling “takes into account our existing and anticipated humanitarian workload on all fronts and fulfills our primary duty to protect and serve U.S. citizens.”
The State Department said it anticipates getting more than 368,000 new refugees and asylum claims in the next 12 months, and asserted that the new refugee cap will help mitigate an immense immigration court backlog that exceeds 1 million cases.
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“Our country hosts hundreds of thousands of people who have temporary and permanent protection under special immigration categories such as victims of trafficking, humanitarian parole, temporary protected status, and special immigrant juvenile status. These programs, in addition to our refugee and asylum programs, help uphold America’s legacy of caring for the most vulnerable,” the State Department said in a news release.
For months, Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns that the Trump administration would dramatically lower the refugee cap.
“The administration for two years in a row has established the annual refugee admissions target at an embarrassingly low number that betrays America’s values and abandons our leadership role in providing safety to refugees who are most in need of resettlement,” Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
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Refugee resettlement organizations also have been bracing themselves for the announcement, which follows a White House executive order that allows state and local governments to reject refugees in their communities. Advocates said the new cap will leave people around the world in harm’s way and disrupt the infrastructure of local service providers who help resettle and integrate refugee and immigrant populations.
“With one final blow, the Trump administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty’s torch and ended our nation’s legacy of compassion and welcome,” said Church World Service President the Rev. John L. McCullough, president of Church World Service, said in a statement. “The darkness of this day will extend for years, if not decades, to come.”
The White House has consistently lowered the annual refugee cap since President Donald Trump took office. For fiscal 2018, the administration set a cap of 45,000 refugees but ultimately allowed just 22,491, according to State Department data. In the current fiscal year, it lowered its cap to 30,000.