As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump expressed interest in turning away refugees, specifically those from Syria. He said he would ban Muslim immigrants in general, a talking point that remains on his campaign website. And in November, he advocated limiting immigration from "terror-prone regions.”
But could President Trump immediately stop refugees from coming to the U.S.?
The short answer: yes.
"Day One, he can change things," says Jeremy Mayer, associate professor of politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
With about nine weeks to go before the 45th president is sworn into office, his plan regarding refugees remains unclear. But it is within the purview of the U.S. president to decide which groups of refugees – who by definition are fleeing persecution in their home countries – will make the cut. And he won’t need congressional support.
"He can’t remove [the Refugee Act of 1980] from the books, but he can certainly reduce the numbers and reduce the numbers from certain regions," says Kevin Appleby, senior director of International Migration Policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
Could that mean no refugees would be allowed in after the inauguration on January 20?
"Technically, yeah," says Appleby. "He has a lot of power in terms of who comes in and the number of people who come in."
About 14,500 Syrians were approved for resettlement and have moved to the U.S. since last October. The U.N. human rights agency, UNHCR, estimates nearly 1.2 million refugees are in need of permanent resettlement because they cannot return to their home countries, with Syrians accounting for 40 percent of that worldwide total.
Where rhetoric meets policy
The U.S. has a decades-long history of resettling refugees. Without support from Congress, a president cannot change the law at the heart of the refugee program.
But according to that law, the president has broad, unilateral power over how many refugees are admitted, and where they come from. Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the president establishes how many refugees will be allowed into the U.S.
President Barack Obama raised that figure – the so-called admissions ceiling – from 70,000 to 85,000 in fiscal year 2016, largely to accommodate an increase in Syrian refugees. The number of those fleeing civil war and Islamic State militants in the country has continued to multiply. The Obama administration raised the ceiling to 110,000 for the current fiscal year, which extends through next September.
Trump could use his executive powers to maintain that level, reduce it, pause the program, or restrict refugees from certain countries. Experts say he could also create a work-around to effectively ban Muslims. For example, he could order that only certain persecuted groups – say, Christians in Syria or Iraq – be considered for admission, while excluding Muslims from that protected category, though they may have fled the same dangers.
Long pro-refugee tradition
Experts and researchers on refugee policy maintain the U.S. program is respected internationally. The country permanently resettles more refugees through the UNHCR system than any other.
"If the U.S. pulls back, it would be a humanitarian disaster. Other nations won’t necessarily step up to fill the breach," says Appleby.
"What we know is that throughout the history of the U.S., refugees and immigrants have been welcomed by presidents of both parties, during war and peace," says Stacie Blake, spokeswoman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "During this global refugee crisis of unprecedented proportion, it is no time to shrink from this leadership."
Trump said on the campaign trail that the refugee vetting process is nonexistent, an allegation that the current government and nonprofit organizations working with refugees have repeatedly disputed.
"I share the questions as to how the rhetoric [from Trump] will be interpreted in the realm of policy and practice. We don’t know," says Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College.
Egmont sees a campaign cycle in which conservative candidates seized on discussions about Islamic State and other acts of violence, and "perhaps misassociated it with refugees, and fed a confusion in the popular mind."
Refugee admissions came to a halt once before after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But within two years, under new procedures, arrivals began again and hovered around 60,000 to 70,000 throughout much of the last decade.
Despite political backlash against refugees last year, Egmont remains optimistic about the future of the program.
"Most people just do not have opportunity to know refugees personally enough, to know the years they’ve suffered in miserable living environments," he adds. "I believe the long arc of history is just, and the United States will continue to both welcome newcomers and to right any wrong that might be taken in any short term initiative."
From October 1 to November 16, 14,568 refugees have arrived in the U.S., according to State Department data. Democratic Republic of Congo is the top country of origin, with nearly 3,500 individuals, followed by Somalia, Syria and Iraq, each of which had roughly 2,000 refugees admitted to the U.S.
Only in 2015 did the U.S. significantly answer the appeal by UNHCR to increase Syrian refugee admissions, focusing additional personnel on Jordan to process more applications.
The Obama administration says there will be no similar last-minute effort to increase refugee arrivals to the U.S. ahead of possible cuts to the program.
"We have no plans to accelerate the refugee admissions process," a State Department spokesperson said in an email this week.