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White House Aims for Historic Low in Refugee Resettlement   

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Luz Bertila Zazueta, 75, of Tijuana, right, hugs farewell to a Peruvian family whose numbers were called Sept. 26, 2019, to claim asylum in San Diego. Zazueta persuaded a neighbor to let the family live in his empty house free during a six-month wait.

The Trump administration is proposing to accept a maximum of 18,000 refugees in the coming year, in what would be the lowest refugee ceiling in the country’s history, the U.S. State Department said Thursday.

If the government follows through, 2020 will be the third year of significant cuts to refugee resettlement under President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump tweeted, June 17, 2019, that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will begin removing millions of people who are in the country illegally.
President Donald Trump tweeted, June 17, 2019, that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will begin removing millions of people who are in the country illegally.

For now, however, the latest figure remains a proposal.

The final decision, in the form of the so-called “presidential determination,” will be made in the coming weeks after the required consultations with Congress, a senior administration official told reporters in a phone briefing organized by the White House on Thursday.

In fiscal 2018, the first full year of the Trump administration, the ceiling was set at 45,000, and 22,491 refugees were admitted.

In fiscal 2019, the ceiling was 30,000. With only three full days remaining in the fiscal year, the U.S. is close to the limit, with 29,972 refugees admitted, according to State Department data.

Before Trump’s election, the refugee ceiling average was 60,000 to 70,000 since the current version of the program began in 1980.

Refugee settlement

During President Barack Obama’s last year in office, he set the ceiling at 110,000. Citing concerns over security procedures, Trump reduced that number by more than half early in his presidency in 2017.

However, data does not support the administration’s link between drastic cuts to the program and the alleged national security concerns.

The resettlement community pushed for a ceiling of 95,000 in 2020, and condemnation of the proposed ceiling was swift Thursday.

Hussam Alhallak, left, sons Danyal, held by his father, and Muhammad, wife Hazar Mansour and daughter Layan, right, stand by their new home being built by Habitat for Humanity of Rutland County in Rutland, Vt., July 31, 2019.
Hussam Alhallak, left, sons Danyal, held by his father, and Muhammad, wife Hazar Mansour and daughter Layan, right, stand by their new home being built by Habitat for Humanity of Rutland County in Rutland, Vt., July 31, 2019.

“Today’s refugee admissions announcement is a signal to the world that the U.S. is no longer a welcoming place, a message that will have reverberations around the world for years to come,” Daryl Grisgraber, Oxfam America humanitarian policy lead, said.

The proposed ceiling is one of three fundamental changes to the resettlement program announced Thursday.

Trump also issued an executive order that will require state and local governments to “consent” to accept refugees for resettlement.

While not a widespread issue, the order would allow states like Tennessee, which unsuccessfully sued the federal government to stop resettlement, to potentially prevent willing nonprofit organizations in the state from accepting refugees.

“Immigration is firmly established as a federal issue, both in the Constitution and from centuries of judicial precedent. Ceding this responsibility to states and localities is an abdication of executive responsibility that dates back to our nation’s founding,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the primary national resettlement agencies in the United States.

Critics of the U.S. refugee program have long championed not only a reduction in admissions, but more specific changes such as those in the executive order that alter how resettlement is carried out.

FILE - From left, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, share a laugh, Nov. 14, 2018, before Cuccinelli joined the Trump administration.
FILE - From left, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, share a laugh, Nov. 14, 2018, before Cuccinelli joined the Trump administration.

Possible changes

Earlier Thursday, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees part of the refugee admissions process, hinted at changes to the program but omitted details.

“I think you might see some other entities that get to play a role in making decisions about refugees and resettlement here in the near future ... and we’re looking at how to alter those relationships,” he said during an interview with the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies.

In addition to the reduced ceiling and newly established veto powers for state and local officials, the U.S. State Department is also creating new categories for refugee admissions — a procedure used rarely to meet targeted needs, usually for a specific region.

For fiscal 2020, however, the total will include up to 5,000 refugees persecuted on account of their religious beliefs; 4,000 spots for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. during its operations in the country, and up to 1,500 of what the White House called “legitimate refugees” from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Subsequently, under the Trump administration proposal, the U.S. refugee program would allow for a maximum of 7,500 refugees who fall outside these categories.

Already under Trump, the demographics of who is allowed in under the refugee program shifted away from certain countries and religions, with a significant drop in the number of Muslim refugees admitted.

Since refugees cannot be admitted in the new fiscal year until the presidential determination is signed, arrivals in the coming weeks will be limited to those refugees with travel already scheduled, a senior administration official said.

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