Cuts in refugee admission defended as necessary, decried as ‘disastrous’

A family in a Lebanese refugee camp in 2013. The Trump administration cut refugee admissions this year to the lowest level since 1980, a move critics say will hurt people fleeing war and persecution, but supporters say still is more than enough. (Photo by Dragan Tatic, Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Three months after the Trump administration cut the number of refugees the U.S. will accept to the lowest level since 1980, aid groups in Arizona say they already are feeling the effects.

“What used to be a very active program has slowed down dramatically and so before, we used to have maybe a handful of families arriving every week,” said Aaron Rippenkroeger. “Now, maybe it’s one family per week, or some weeks there won’t be any new arrivals at all.”

Rippenkroeger, interim executive director of the Phoenix office of the International Rescue Committee, called the new refugee ceiling “shamefully low.” But the administration said the change merely reflects “operational realities” associated with national security and public safety.

The administration announced in September that it would cut refugee admissions from 45,000 in fiscal 2018 to 30,000 this year. Admission levels have been as high as 100,000 in previous administrations – even though the cap is rarely exceeded, however high or low it may be.

In a report to Congress by the departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, authorities said the move was made, in part, to free up workers to devote more attention to the backlog of asylum cases from the rush of migrants at the border.

“Lengthy backlogs in asylum processing undermine the integrity of the asylum system,” the report said. “They delay legal protection for individuals who are legitimately fleeing persecution and have valid asylum claims.”

In order to address asylum in 2017 and 2018, DHS “shifted a significant proportion” of its refugee officers to processing asylum applications and conducting screenings for credible and reasonable fear, according to the report.

“This reduced the number of refugee interviews that could be conducted abroad in those years,” the report said.

But some experts call the lowered ceiling irresponsible.

“There’s no reason why the United States cannot have a robust refugee resettlement program and address the real deficiencies and backlogs in its asylum program in the United States,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies.

“Instead, what it seems intent on doing is keeping people from accessing that system, and not sufficiently staffing or resourcing the asylum system or the refugee system. That’s a real tragedy.”

And Rippenkroeger said that advocates have not seen the increase in border-asylum processing that was promised in exchange for the reduction in refugee admissions.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that they’ve dramatically turned down the resources for the refugee admissions program, but we see very little uptick on the asylum-seeking process,” Rippenkroeger said. “I think we would be able to recognize if there was a reduction on one side and an increase in the other, but all we’re seeing is reductions across the board.”

But Matthew Sussis of the Center for Immigration Studies said the U.S. has a “massive, massive asylum backlog, and it’s important to help those people, too.” Redirecting resources from processing refugees overseas to processing asylum claims here makes sense, he said.

“Realistically, they have a finite number of resources and they are taking some of those refugee officers and using them – the same officers – to support the asylum program, which is going to allow them to adjudicate some number of thousands more asylum cases every year,” said Sussis, whose organization supports reduced immigration.

“Maybe we could try to get USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) more resources, I’d certainly support that,” he said. “But in its current iteration, it’s not quite zero-sum, but it’s certainly along those lines.”

Rippenkroeger said U.S. policy should not pit one group seeking to come to this country against another.

“It’s very frustrating when you see one vulnerable population being pitted against another, especially when it’s completely unnecessary, and that’s really what we see in that statement,” he said of the administration report to Congress.

Kerwin said the refugee program “has been eviscerated” under the Trump administration. He called it “part and parcel of the same vision” that led to White House attempts to lift Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

The changes come at a time when there are 25.4 million refugees globally, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, constituting the “highest levels of displacement on record.”

But Sussis notes that the U.S. is the largest donor to the UNHCR, “and we’ve provided $8 billion for the Syrians since 2011.” He contended that the U.S. can help about 11 people overseas for what it spends to resettle one refugee here.

“So while a lot of those advocates are probably upset about the lower ceiling, you’ve got to keep in mind that a huge part of assisting refugees, beyond the resettlement, is actually the funding and the efforts to assist people overseas,” Sussis said. “Those efforts have remained pretty robust, which we would say is a good thing.”

He downplayed the effect of a lower admissions level, noting that the cap is rarely met.

“In the past, sometimes they’ve kind of highballed it, taken a number that’s too far above, but this year as they get through the security vetting faster, they’ll probably get a little more efficient,” Sussis said.

Kerwin acknowledged that it’s not likely that the refugees this year will exceed the lower cap of 30,000 – only about 22,500 refugees were resettled in the U.S. last year when the ceiling was 45,000. But he said that while admissions rarely exceed the cap, they typically rise and fall with it.

Rippenkroeger agreed.

“The average in the history of the program, from 1980 until now, has been about 95,000 people per year for that ceiling,” he said. “The United States has fallen short of that ceiling in the past, it wouldn’t always get to that level, but that was the stated goal.”

Rippenkroeger said limiting the number of refugee admissions can affect families here as well as those overseas.

“The majority of the program is a family reunification program with family who have been in the United States for many, many years … as these numbers are further reduced, it’s just one humanitarian tragedy after another, family by family,” he said.

Rippenkroeger said his organization planned to keep working to help refugees, despite the limitations. But he lamented the restrictions on what he said has “always been a very bipartisan program,” heralded as an example of America’s values.

Kerwin said the U.S. should be a role model for the rest of the world, but worries the new restrictions tarnish that image.

“The implications are that the United States is ceding any claim of leadership in addressing refugee situations globally that involve more refugees than there have ever been,” he said. “It’s disastrous. It’s a disastrous development.”