- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2019

Immigrant-rights advocates turned to the courts and Congress on Thursday to try to revive America’s refugee program, which they say has been left on life support after three years of Trump administration attacks.

Religious groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in Maryland seeking to block President Trump’s new executive order giving localities a veto over whether refugees can be resettled within their boundaries.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, top Democrats announced new legislation that would reverse the tighter restrictions Mr. Trump has imposed on the refugee and asylum systems.

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For one, the bill would require the president to set an annual cap of no fewer than 95,000 refugees admitted. That would be more refugees than the U.S. has taken in any year since 1995.

The legislation, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, would also unwind many of Mr. Trump’s stiffer asylum policies, which were imposed to try to stem the surge of migrants that overwhelmed the border this year.

The new bill also would expand the grounds for receiving asylum protection, making claims based on family violence or gang threats viable. The Trump administration says asylum or refugee status should be for people fleeing government persecution, and the government has taken steps to limit successful cases to block domestic violence or gang violence as valid reasons.

“As the world faces the worst refugee crisis in recorded history, the United States should be embracing our role as the humanitarian leader of the world — not retreating from it, as the Trump administration has shamefully done,” Mr. Leahy said.

Refugees are those who apply for protection outside U.S., while asylum-seekers are those who apply after having already reached American soil. They are subject to the same standards for winning protections, though asylum-seekers generally have an advantage because they’ve already gained a foothold in the country, while refugees wait outside for a final decision.

Each year the president sets a cap on the maximum number of refugees allowed. President Obama oversaw a decline and then a rise in the cap, reaching 85,000 by 2016. He tried to set a 110,000 refugee cap for fiscal 2017, the year that spanned his tenure and that of Mr. Trump, but the new administration cut the number to about 50,000.

Since then Mr. Trump has ratcheted the cap down further still, to 45,000 in 2018, 30,000 in 2019 and 18,000 for 2020, the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The administration argues that the drop in refugee processing is needed to handle the crush of asylum seekers at the border. Those numbers have swelled to 105,000 in fiscal 2019 — up from about 5,000 a decade ago.

“It is the same type of population but they are landing at our border and on our soil and so we are shifting resources to contend with that and that is still, that backlog continues to grow. We are at over 340,000 cases and growing,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told senators last week.

In addition to stricter caps, Mr. Trump announced new rules that reserve refugee spots for certain classes of people, such as those fleeing religious persecution or Iraqis who assisted the U.S. government. And he issued an executive order giving localities a veto over having refugees sent to live there.

It’s that order the religious groups challenged in their lawsuit Thursday. They say the new policy violates refugee law and the Administrative Procedure Act, and also runs afoul of the Constitution, which assigns immigration powers to the national government, not to states or localities.

Usually refugees are resettled by committee, with a group of nonprofits meeting regularly under the auspices of the government to figure out which candidates can be accommodated in which areas.

The new Trump order requires the groups to get affirmative consent of local officials before considering their jurisdictions as destinations.

The groups complained that Mr. Trump’s order was vague and doesn’t even define what it means by “locality,” creating a nightmare for trying to figure out who must give consent.

The Refugee Act of 1980 law requires localities to be consulted, but the groups said demanding affirmative consent goes too far.

“Communities across the United States stand ready to welcome refugees, including Americans who have been waiting years to reunite with family members. A single local politician should not be able to veto these displays of basic humanity,” said Melissa Keaney, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

The local consent policy grew out of complaints during the Obama administration, when localities objected to plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees during that country’s civil war. Security experts said they couldn’t be sure of who was being admitted.

Trump officials say they are convinced there are more than enough communities willing to welcome refugees that a veto won’t hinder overall admissions.

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