The Trump administration will propose cutting the number of refugees admitted in 2020 to 18,000, and will also call for a major restructuring of the program to align it with U.S. interests, including giving localities a say in whether they can accommodate the new arrivals.
The plan will also reduce the role of the U.N. in picking America’s refugees, and instead give priority to religious minorities and Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. government, and to refugees the U.S has agreed to resettle on behalf of Australia.
Officials submitted the proposal to Congress on Thursday, kicking off a consultation period that will conclude with President Trump making a final determination next month.
But based on past consultations, the 18,000 number is likely to hold firm.
It would be the lowest cap since the modern refugee system was created in 1980, and marks a 12,000 drop from the fiscal year 2019 cap, and a major reduction from the 110,000 refugee target the Obama administration tried to set for 2017.
Even though the refugee number is low, the U.S. remains a leader in humanitarian protections, with some 350,000 asylum-seekers expected to begin claims next year. Asylum is protection granted to people already in the U.S., while refugees are those requesting protections from outside the country.
There’s already a backlog of nearly 1 million asylum cases pending with Homeland Security and the immigration courts.
A senior administration official said they view asylum and the refugee program in tandem, and as the number of migrants demanding asylum on the southwest border has surged, it’s natural that the government would cut the number of refugees it can handle.
“Given the massive backlog we’ve got in humanitarian protection cases that are already in our country, it makes sense to prioritize that caseload before we go abroad looking for new refugees to resettle,” the official told The Washington Times.
As striking as the smaller refugee cap is, officials said the changes to the system are just as important.
Chief among those is a new executive order Mr. Trump issued Thursday giving states and localities the chance to consent before refugees are sent to their jurisdictions.
The administration says refugees, who are entitled to taxpayer programs such as Medicaid, and who often bring children who have special education needs, can tax localities’ capacity. It makes sense for both the communities and the refugees to make sure localities are ready to handle them.
“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement,” Mr. Trump said in his new order.
It’s an issue a number of jurisdictions raised several years back when the Obama administration was inviting refugees from the war-torn terrorism hotbed of Syria, raising security concerns in some areas of the U.S.
The administration will also change the way the refugee cap is allocated. In the past, each region of the globe had a limit, which served to spread refugees around different regions.
But Trump officials say those geographic divisions didn’t align with the law, which says the U.S should prioritize important cases.
Instead, they will divide the 18,000 refugees into interest categories, with 5,000 slots designated for religious minorities, 4,000 slots for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S., and 1,500 refugees from Central America’s Northern Triangle region.
Those countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — account for almost all of the border asylum surge, and the administration hopes that carving out a set number of refugee slots will help separate valid claims from the mostly bogus cases coming through the asylum system.
“The idea is if we can find them, we can give them an alternative to having to make the dangerous trip here,” the administration official said.
Refugee advocates were outraged by the lower refugee cap, saying Mr. Trump was betraying America’s leadership role on the global stage. They’d hoped to see a cap of close to 100,000 refugees, and they said Congress should try to convince Mr. Trump to raise the ceiling before he finalizes it next month.
“We admit refugees not because they are American, but because we are American,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The International Refugee Assistance Project blasted the new executive order giving localities a say in resettlement, saying it was likely illegal and unnecessary.
“These policies will prevent refugees from being resettled, even though communities across the nation stand ready to welcome them,” said Betsy Fisher, strategy director at IRAP.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary at Homeland Security, said the U.S. isn’t shirking its leadership, but is refocusing efforts on the border asylum-seekers.
“The United States has always been and will always remain the most generous nation in the world when it comes to welcoming those in need of humanitarian protection, including refugees, asylees, and victims of trafficking,” he said.
The new refugee proposal will also reduce the role of the U.N., which traditionally has played gatekeeper in vetting and suggesting potential refugees to the U.S. Officials said the administration will still rely on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to suggest valid Northern Triangle refugees, and the UNHCR will also be able to flag potential applicants in other categories.
But religious minorities and Iraqis can apply directly to the U.S. under existing laws, replacing the need to rely on the U.N. as the chief source for selecting potential newcomers.
The 18,000 cap is a maximum number of refugees that can be admitted, and administrations often fall well short of that number. In fiscal year 2018, Mr. Trump set a cap of 45,000, but resettled only about half that number.
In fiscal year 2019, the president set a cap of 30,000. As of Thursday, with four days to go in the fiscal year, the government was only a couple dozen refugees shy of the cap.