The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will dramatically reduce the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States, bringing the number to less than half of what former President Barack Obama had proposed for the current fiscal year.
The US plans to admit no more than 45,000 refugees in the coming year, with regional caps of 19,000 for Africa, 17,500 for the Near East and South Asia (which includes most Middle Eastern countries), 5,000 for East Asia, 2,000 for Europe and Central Asia, and 1,500 for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Unlike in previous years, this cap does not include a so-called “unallocated reserve” quota for the administration to respond to unforeseen upticks in refugees within one of the regions, a State Department official confirmed to CNN.
“The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern,” one senior US government official told reporters on a conference call, later adding that the number is “consistent with our foreign policy goals and operational capacity in light of additional security vetting procedures that we are implementing, and the domestic asylum backlog that (the Department of Homeland Security) is currently facing.”
The new cap is the lowest in decades for the US refugee admission program and marks an especially steep decline from recent years.
Last year, then-President Obama announced the United States would take in at least 110,000 refugees, up from 85,000 in the previous year.
But the effort stalled after President Donald Trump took office and signed an executive order temporarily halting refugee admissions. That order was delayed by legal action, but was ultimately implemented for refugees who could not demonstrate “bona fide” family ties in the United States.
As of Wednesday, State Department data shows that just over 53,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States this current fiscal year, which ends on Sunday.
With the new figures, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke shared with members of Congress Wednesday afternoon, the administration is further limiting resettlement.
As a presidential candidate, Trump often criticized the US refugee program, insisting that vetting procedures were insufficient to weed out applicants who might pose a security risk.
He was especially critical of the Obama administration’s pledge to take in Syrian refugees, saying in a CNBC interview, “We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork. … This could be one of the great Trojan horses.”
Within days of taking office, Trump signed an executive order which put a 120-day halt on all refugee administrations, and set an overall cap of 50,000 refugees for the year. That order was later revised, and became the subject of a prolonged legal battle that is still under consideration in the Supreme Court.
The 120-day pause ultimately took effect in June and will continue until late October. During that time, the Departments of Homeland Security and State are reviewing security vetting procedures with a view toward strengthening those before resuming resettlement.
The officials who briefed reporters on Wednesday emphasized that the US remains the world’s leading donor of humanitarian assistance, and leads in permanent resettlement of refugees (with a very slight edge over Canada).
However, US resettlement pales in comparison with countries in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, which are burdened by their closer proximity to the violent conflicts that spur displacement.
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, for example, have taken in millions of refugees from neighboring Syria, while in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has taken in a million refugees since 2015.
The Trump administration did not notify refugee resettlement groups, who assist refugees with their transition to the United States, ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, one official said, adding, “I think this is probably in the range that they expected.”
One resettlement group, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement they were “profoundly disappointed that at a time of historic, never before seen need, the United States would so drastically reduce the number of refugees to whom we are able to offer protection and safety.”
Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO, told CNN she was “deeply disappointed” by the number, which falls well below the 75,000 or more they were hoping to see from the administration.
“It didn’t have to be this number,” she said. “This isn’t right, and it certainly doesn’t reflect American values or the expectations of communities and local churches and people I talk to all over this country.”
Democrats in Congress have also expressed dismay.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement the new cap “is devastating to tens of thousands of innocent people, and a blow to America’s standing as the premier global humanitarian leader.”
“Setting a record-low refugee admissions level is more evidence of the Trump administration’s indifference and lack of humanity toward thousands of vulnerable refugees who have been forced to flee their home countries through no fault of their own,” he wrote.
There was also bipartisan frustration over the administration’s decision to largely exclude members of Congress from the decision making process in setting the new restrictions.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, were among the members being briefed by Tillerson Wednesday afternoon when the numbers were released to the public.
They released a joint statement after the meeting, saying it was “simply unacceptable to read in the press that the administration had reached its decision on the refugee cap before the mandated meeting with Congress had even been scheduled.”
“Since August, our offices have made bipartisan requests to the State Department on this meeting,” they wrote. Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject. An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient.”