Published 9:41 PM EDT Sep 17, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration will dramatically restrict the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States next year — permitting no more than 30,000 people fleeing war, violence and persecution across the globe to make a new home in America.
That's down from the 45,000 refugee cap set last year, which was already the lowest since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. And data from the State Department indicates the administration won't even reach that 45,000. With only two weeks remaining in the 2018 fiscal year, the administration has admitted 20,918 refugees.
In making the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would also "process" 280,000 asylum seekers attempting to enter the U.S. He did not say the U.S. would accept that many asylum seekers, but said the idea they would at least get a shot to claim asylum showed the administration's "commitment to vulnerable people around the world."
"These expansive figures continue the United States longstanding record as the most generous nation in the world when it comes to protection-based immigration and assistance," Pompeo said.
The drop immediately drew a rebuke from human rights organizations, who have pleaded with the administration to maintain America's standing as a beacon of hope for oppressed people around the world, especially as European countries are swamped by one of the biggest migrations of displaced people in recorded history.
Amnesty International called it an "an all-out attack" against refugees around the world. The International Rescue Committee said the administration was "reneging on commitments to allies and vulnerable populations." And Human Rights First called it a "shameful abdication of our humanity."
"Our nation was founded on the backs of refugees, and our country has been enriched by these brave individuals who come here to rebuild their lives in safety," Jennifer Quigley of Human Rights First. "By setting the lowest refugee cap in history, we have turned our backs not only on those in dire circumstances abroad, but on our own American ideals."
Democrats in Congress also assailed the announcement, hinting of possible push-back from lawmakers.
“Quite simply, this decision will lead to innocent people dying," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He cited Syria's devastating civil war as an example, saying the U.S. is denying "Syrian refugees a safe haven and doing nothing to support other countries to which Syrians are fleeing."
Before Trump took office, the U.S. led the world in accepting refugees for decades, resettling more than 3 million people since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.
Pompeo argued the new refugee ceiling was not an abandonment of that role.
“Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world. This would be wrong,” Trump’s chief diplomat told reporters at the State Department. “This year’s proposed refugee ceiling must be considered in the context of the many other forms of protection and assistance offered by the United States.”
Pompeo said the U.S. provided more than $8 billion in humanitarian assistance worldwide in fiscal year 2017 – “more than any other country.”
Pompeo also cast the lower refugee cap as a national security issue. He said the U.S. asylum system is already overwhelmed, with more than 800,000 pending cases that need to be adjudicated.
“In consideration of both U.S. national security interests and the urgent need to restore integrity to our overwhelmed asylum system, the United States will focus on addressing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in the country,” Pompeo said.
Refugees and asylum seekers must show they have been persecuted in their home country, or have a well-founded fear of persecution there on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Refugees make their claims from abroad, while asylum seekers make their claims once they've reached the U.S.
President Donald Trump made a crackdown against illegal immigration a central theme of his presidential campaign. But Monday's reduction of refugee admissions represents his latest step to curb legal immigration.
One of his first moves as president was to institute a controversial travel ban that included a temporary halt to the refugee program. And then the administration started lowering the annual cap.
In President Barack Obama's final year in office, the annual cap on refugees was 110,000; Trump first scaled that down to 45,000 for 2018, and now further to 30,000 for next year.
And while Pompeo pointed to asylum applications as proof that the U.S. remains a "generous" nation, he did not mention the myriad moves taken by the administration to curtail that opportunity as well.
In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled strict new limitations on asylum applicants, asserting that victims of domestic abuse and even gang violence would no longer qualify for such protection.
The following month, Sessions released another set of guidelines that allows immigration officials to use an asylum applicants' illegal entry into the United States as a strike against their asylum application. U.S. law and United Nations agreements specifically state that illegal entry should not count against them, since they are fleeing persecution and deserve a chance to have their cases heard.