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Under Trump, U.S. Admits Lowest Level of Refugees in Decades

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Since taking office, Donald Trump and his Administration have implemented a sweeping anti-immigrant agenda that has involved multiple Muslim bans, mass deportations, the termination of DACA, the cancellation of temporary protected status (TPS) for multiple groups — and a dramatic reduction of the number of refugees admitted into the U.S.

So far this year, only 5,000 refugees have been admitted. This year’s cap on refugees is 45,000, the lowest level in decades, though at the current rate of admissions, it’s possible that only 20,000 refugees will be brought in all year.

The decrease in refugee admissions is part of Trump’s plan to implement a nativist, ethno-centric agenda which has long been pushed by hate groups. And Trump’s Administration is behind him: chief of staff John Kelly, who used to oversee the Department of Homeland Security, once said that if it were up to him, he would admit between zero and one refugee into the U.S. each year.

Trump and his Administration act like refugees are an inherently dangerous people and the United States is magnanimous in accepting any at all. But refugees undergo a rigorous screening process and multiple reports have found that they are beneficial to the U.S. economy. Moreover, the entire history of the United States involves welcoming in immigrants who were seeking opportunity or safety that they couldn’t find in their home country. Trump and his Administration are, in essence, barring the next generation of Americans.

Donald Trump and refugee admissions

Since taking office, Donald Trump has significantly curtailed refugee entry into the U.S. by:

  • Slashing refugee admissions into the United States to 45,000 people per year
  • Issuing an executive order pausing the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program for four months (from June to Oct. 2017), including a near-total suspension of admissions from 11 countries
  • Instituting stricter vetting requirements, requiring officials to rescreen refugee applicants who already had been through the process and slowing admissions down
  • Suspending its policy of admitting family members of refugees

Only 5,000 refugees were admitted into the U.S. within the first three months of fiscal year 2018. In Trump’s first presidential year, 33,368 refugees settled in the U.S., half the number accepted in 2015, and about a third of 2016 numbers.

The Trump Administration’s cap of 45,000 refugees per year is the lowest since the Refugee Resettlement Program was created by Congress in 1980. It was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who authorized the highest refugee cap at 217,000 admissions, in comparison to around 70,000 to 80,000 under the Obama and Bush Administrations.

However, under the current pace of admissions, the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. this year is likely to be closer to 20,000 — well below the 45,000 cap.

As Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a written statement, admitting so few refugees shows Trump’s continued callousness toward immigrants:

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.

“It’s enormously discouraging and dispiriting, and it is another reflection of this administration’s march away from the principle of humanity,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, who ran the refugee program at the State Department during the Obama Administration.

Trump’s 45,000 cap includes the following regional caps:

  • 19,000 for Africa
  • 17,500 for Near East South Asia (including most Middle Eastern countries)
  • 5,000 for East Asia
  • 2,000 for Europe and Central Asia
  • 1,500 for Latin America and the Caribbean

A religious shift has also occurred with the Trump Administration’s recent changes. In previous years, Muslims comprised more than 40 percent of refugees, yet Muslims only comprise 14 percent of refugees admitted during the first three months of fiscal year 2018. Admissions of Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus have risen, according to State Department data.

Background: Refugee resettlement in the U.S.

The U.S. is one of 28 resettlement countries. Only one percent of refugees out of 22 million worldwide receive consideration for resettlement, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The U.S. lags far behind other nations accepting refugees (relative to population and GDP), according to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Refugee Agency. Less wealthy countries also host most of the forcibly displaced.

America has always held a long-standing tradition of helping and welcoming refugees fleeing war and persecution. An unprecedented 65.3 million people are currently forcibly displaced worldwide, reports the UNHCR, with nearly 5 million from Syria, one of the countries listed in Trump’s travel ban. Twenty-two million refugees are under the age of 18, and 10 million people have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement.

Refugees targeted by violence are prioritized for resettlement. Once selected and approved, they undergo a rigorous and years-long screening process that involves:

  1. Security: pre-screenings, on-site interviews, security clearance, and fingerprinting
  2. Placement: placing, cultural orientation, and departure processing
  3. Resettlement

Additional detailed refugee resettlement information can be found here and here.

The worldwide refugee crisis was made worse by this week’s announcement by the Department of State that it was slashing annual funding to the U.N. Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) from $350 million in 2017 to $60 million, less than half of the promised $125 million installment. Some of the world’s most vulnerable people will suffer from reduced funding for vital educational, health, and welfare programs. Critics state the Trump Administration “is creating conditions that will generate further instability throughout the [mid-East] region”.

Trump’s travel bans and scaled-back refugee program have reportedly put him at odds with the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Defense. The top U.S. diplomat for refugees, Simon Henshaw, the acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, recently became the third senior U.S. official to depart or be reassigned from refugee work.

Becca Heller with the International Refugee Assistance Project, however, says there are limits to Trump’s presidential powers to change the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Congress established the program’s framework, so Trump cannot eliminate it altogether.

“I think [the refugee program is] under attack but I don’t think it’s over. For one thing, it’s the law,” said Heller. “The president may be able to temporarily prevent refugees from coming in. [He’s] not going to successfully dismantle the program without Congress.”