Advocates alarmed by reports administration may lower refugee cap again

A family submits an asylum application at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees center in Lebanon in this 2014 file photo. The number of refugees admitted into the U.S. has steadily declined under the Trump administration. (Photo by Mohamed Azakir/World Bank)

WASHINGTON – Advocates reacted with alarm Tuesday to published reports that the Trump administration may again cut the number of refugees allowed in to the U.S., a move they said would endanger vulnerable people and tarnish the country’s standing.

President Donald Trump has cut refugee admission limits every year since he took office, from a cap of 110,000 in the last year of President Barack Obama’s tenure to 45,000 in fiscal 2018 and 30,000 in this fiscal year.

Published reports say those numbers may be lowered again in fiscal 2020. The New York Times reported last week that refugees could be capped at 10,000 to 15,000 people, with those spots reserved for certain groups or countries, while Politico reported in July that the number could be cut to zero, allowing the president to admit some refugees in emergencies.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services referred queries about the reports to the White House, which referred them to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not immediately respond.

But critics were quick to decry the possible cuts as cruel, saying they contradict the principles of acceptance that the United States has historically embraced. It’s particularly concerning at a time when 100,000 refugees have already been referred to the U.S. for resettlement, according to the International Rescue Committee.

“The number currently already is at a historic low and it’s too low,” said Stanford Prescott, community engagement director for the IRC in Phoenix. “And continued cuts are unfair, inhumane and they’re strategically irresponsible.”

The number of Arizona refugees resettled in Arizona alone has fallen to just over 1,200 this year, as of Tuesday, compared to 2,250 in the last year the Obama administration set the federal cap.

“Arizona has actually been one of the highest states for refugee resettlement in the United States,” Prescott said. “The numbers change year to year, but we’ve typically seen a few thousand being resettled here in Arizona. And the number has gone down in recent years as this federal cap has been lowered.”

-Cronkite News video by Marcella Baietto

State and local lawmakers from Arizona were among the hundreds from across the nation who signed a letter to the White House urging Trump to resettle at least 95,000 refugees in the U.S. in the next fiscal year.

“The American people – our constituents – express their support for resettling refugees in our communities every single day,” the letter read. “Like us, they know that refugees are not people to be feared – they are men, women, and children who were forced to flee in order to save their lives and are now looking for a place to call home again.”

Despite the backlash, the decision seems to be Trump’s to make: Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act says that refugee admissions “shall be such number as the President determines, before the beginning of the fiscal year and after appropriate consultation, is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

If carried, critics said, the move would be just part of the Trump administration’s broader goal of reducing the number of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in the United States.

When the administration lowered the refugee ceiling last year, the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services told Congress that the move would allow more resources to go toward processing the backlog of asylum cases for 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.”

It also said that after DHS shifted “a significant proportion” of its refugee officers to process asylum applications and conduct credible-fear and reasonable-fear screenings in fiscal 2017 and 2018, fewer officers were able to conduct refugee interviews.

But the idea that refugee admissions have to be reduced to help process asylum cases was criticized by advocates and policy experts, who said the two systems existed separately before and who called attention toward asylum seekers “disingenuous.”

“This administration has an equally hostile attitude toward asylum applicants,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. He pointed to the administration’s recent “Remain in Mexico” policy that requires asylum seekers to await their immigration proceedings in Mexico instead of letting them cross into the U.S. and wait here.

“They’ve made asylum much harder, and the numbers have really come down, the number of people being granted asylum is going down,” Capps said.

Even with higher ceilings under previous administrations, the U.S. only admitted a fraction of the world’s refugees every year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in June that there were 25.9 million refugees globally, which it called “the highest levels of displacement on record.” And the U.S. has not always accepted all the refugees under higher caps set by previous presidents.

“We are really pushing for a return to normal – about 95,000 refugees a year, that is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall number,” said Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, on a Tuesday conference call hosted by the National Immigration Forum.

Refugees already have to meet “pretty high” standards before they will even be considered for resettlement in the U.S., Capps said. Continually lowering the ceiling is just another obstacle.

“There’s plenty of people out there who would meet the criteria for refugee admission or asylum admission to the U.S., there just are,” Capps said. “But under this administration, the attitude has been that only people they consider to be, you know, ‘meritorious’ based on economics, not on humanitarian issues, are the ones that should be let in.”

Advocates said that raising the ceiling is essential to protecting the United States’ position as a role model for other countries.

“The world looks at the United States as a leader and an example,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, on the conference call. “If we are generous, other countries will be generous. If we are not, they won’t be.”

– Cronkite News reporter Marcella Baietto contributed to this report from Phoenix.

Borderlands Reporter, Washington, D.C.