WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has capped the number of refugees it will admit into the United States at 15,000 during the next year, a historic low that reflects the president’s increasing vilification of immigrants on the campaign trail.
Refugee advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers reacted with outrage and disgust after the State Department sent its notification to Congress late Wednesday, issuing the decision hours before the start of the government’s 2021 fiscal year.
The 15,000 figure, the lowest since the 1980 Refugee Act, is a drop from the 2020 cap that was set at 18,000. Since March, the number of refugees admitted to the United States fell sharply as the coronavirus outbreak slashed global travel. Fewer than 12,000 refugees have arrived in the past 12 months, statistics show.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, called the 15,000 cap an “abdication” of the nation’s humanitarian leadership role in the world.
“This absurdly low number is based on nothing more than xenophobic political pandering, and it’s no surprise that this all-time low comes during an election year,” Vignarajah said.
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has broad influence on U.S. immigration policy, has long argued that refugee admission levels should be set in accordance with the volume of asylum claims from migrants who arrive seeking humanitarian protections.
While the refugee program is administered primarily through the State Department and is available to applicants in conflict zones and other imperiled locations abroad, the asylum program is available to those already present on U.S. soil who claim a fear of harm if returned to their native countries.
A surge of claims at the Mexico border during the past five years has worsened a backlog of pending cases in U.S. immigration courts that now exceeds 1 million.
The notice, issued jointly with the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, said the United States “anticipates receiving more than 300,000 new refugees and asylum claims in Fiscal Year 2021,” introducing a numerical projection of anticipated asylum claims. “Of that number, up to 15,000 would be refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and more than 290,000 would be individuals in new asylum cases.”
The statement does not say 290,000 asylum seekers will be allowed to stay in the United States. That decision rests with U.S. immigration courts. Instead, the figure appears to be a projection of how many asylum claims the United States expects to receive.
The Trump administration has all but shut the door to new asylum applicants during the past six months, adopting emergency enforcement measures that allow U.S. agents to rapidly “expel” 90% of border-crossers back to Mexico.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the administration has attempted to achieve much of its anti-immigration agenda under the guise of a public health rationale, but it’s a bad faith excuse,” Vignarajah said.
“We have shown as we have resettled thousands of refugees that there’s no evidence any of these arrivals have endangered Americans,” she said. “Refugees come to this country after the most extreme vetting procedures, including medical-health checks.”
For more than a half-century, U.S. politicians from both parties have generally spoken favorably of refugees as a benefit to the country, people who bring fresh ideas, entrepreneurialism and patriotic fervor. Donald Trump is the first president in the modern era to depict them as a threat and a burden.
Under previous Republican and Democratic administrations, the refugee cap typically exceeded 70,000 a year, and Trump challenger Joe Biden has pledged to set the figure at 125,000 per year if elected.
“This inexcusable new admissions ceiling is a mere fraction of the number of refugees the United States can and should resettle in a year,” Isra Chaker, of Oxfam America, said in a statement condemning the State Department notice. “During the final year of the previous administration, the U.S. safely and successfully resettled an average of 15,000 refugees every two months.”
Trump administration officials have reframed the goal of the refugee program to conform with Miller’s view that those seeking humanitarian protections should remain in temporary housing outside the United States until they can safely return to their countries. “We are working to assist refugees and other displaced people as close to their homes as possible until they can safely and voluntarily return to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their countries,” the State Department’s notice to Congress said.
The notification also framed the lowered cap as a public health decision. “The President’s proposal for refugee resettlement in Fiscal Year 2021 reflects the Administration’s continuing commitment to prioritize the safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.
Trump administration officials insist that the United States remains a generous and welcoming country, an assertion Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated during a visit to Italy.
“We continue to be the single greatest contributor to the relief of humanitarian crisis all around the world,” Pompeo said. “We will continue to do so, certainly so long as President Trump is in office.”
The president’s campaign speeches veer away from that view, most recently in Minnesota, where he told supporters Wednesday that Biden was planning to “inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees.” He paused to allow the boos and jeers to resonate.
The president told supporters that Biden “will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp, overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools and inundating your hospitals,” by bringing foreigners “from the most dangerous countries in the world, including Yemen, Syria, and your favorite country, Somalia.”
Minnesota has resettled thousands of refugees from war-torn countries, including Somalia, the birthplace of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of the president’s most frequent targets for criticism.
Trump belittled Omar in the speech for “telling us how to run our country,” using language typical of authoritarian governments that attempt to stigmatize minorities and depict non-White citizens as foreigners. Omar arrived in the United States as a child, after her family spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.
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The Washington Post’s Carol Morello contributed to this report.