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Trump administration slashes refugee cap to new historic low

No more than 15,000 refugees will be allowed in the new fiscal year, the lowest admittance cap since the program was created in 1980

Protesters against U.S. refugee policies are arrested on the Capitol steps last October.
Protesters against U.S. refugee policies are arrested on the Capitol steps last October. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration announced plans to allow no more than 15,000 refugees into the country this fiscal year, slashing its refugee admittance program to the lowest cap since the system’s creation in 1980. 

“The United States is committed to achieving the best humanitarian outcomes while advancing our foreign policy interests,” the Department of State said in a statement released just before midnight Wednesday, the deadline to announce the cap for fiscal 2021. “Given the dire situation of nearly 80 million displaced people around the world, the mission of American diplomacy is more important than ever.” 

President Donald Trump has lowered the refugee admittance cap every year in office. At a Minnesota rally Wednesday evening, he stoked the crowd by warning that electing Democratic nominee Joe Biden would “inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees.” 

For fiscal 2020, the White House had set the limit at the previous historic low of 18,000 refugees. But as of Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2020, the administration had resettled 65 percent of this cap — only 11,743 refugees, according to the public tally from the Department of State. 

The year before that, the administration limited admissions to 30,000. 

For fiscal 2018, the annual refugee cap was set to 45,000 but ultimately 22,491 were resettled, according to State Department data.

In contrast, President Barack Obama set the cap at 110,000 in 2016 during his final year in office. 

“Let this serve as a wake-up call to those who believe this administration supports avenues of legal immigration” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency, said in a statement. “Refugees have done everything our government has asked of them, yet they continue to be met with egregious processing delays and open hostility from this administration.”

Members of Congress have been pushing the White House to meet with them, as required by law, before making its decision about the admissions cap each fiscal year. But the administration has failed to set up such a meeting in any of the past four years.

On Wednesday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., criticized the administration’s reluctance to consult with Congress.

“In the midst of worst refugee crisis in history, the Trump Admin is so determined to turn away innocent survivors of war and terrorism that they are illegally refusing to consult with Congress about refugee admissions,” he said on Twitter. 

The announcement of the latest cap comes just days after a coalition of former State Department officials who served five previous presidents urged the Trump administration to increase annual refugee admissions for fiscal 2021.

“We believe that any further reduction in refugee resettlement would represent the disregard of dire needs of displaced people around the world at a time when other governments are bearing substantial responsibilities to provide refuge,” the group wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Last fall, Trump announced this fiscal year’s refugee cap around the same time as he issued an executive order that allowed state and local governments to turn away refugees from resettling in their communities. However, 42 states, including 19 with Republican governors, and more than 100 mayors consented to resettlement in their jurisdiction, “a move that reportedly caught the White House by surprise,” according to a January report by the Migration Policy Institute.

In January, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland also blocked the executive order from going into effect , saying it “does not appear to serve the overall public interest.”

Miles Taylor, the chief of staff of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security until last year, said in a tweet earlier this week that the administration wanted to eliminate refugee resettlement in 2020.

“I can tell you firsthand that the President and top advisors wanted to take the number down to 0 — ZERO — refugees admitted into the United States,” he wrote on Twitter. “That is not the America we built. And we can’t allow it to happen.” 

Refugee resettlement organizations had expressed increasing frustration over the delay in announcing the fiscal 2021 refugee cap and the Trump administration’s reluctance to consult with Congress on the matter. In a press call Tuesday, faith leaders lamented the record low resettlement during a time of record high global displacement.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. is choosing to look away from the suffering that we could alleviate,” said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, a faith organization that helps resettles refugees. “We really believe that it’s a black eye on our history.”  

In the same call, Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention in the Trump administration who oversaw the travel ban against people from majority Muslim nations, also dismissed the argument that refugee resettlement was a national security issue. 

“Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted populations that are admitted to the United States,” she said. “Delaying the processing of refugees is increasing the root causes that lead to radicalization and potentially creating more terrorists. From a national security perspective, closing the door will not help us.”

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