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White House Officially Issues Lowest Refugee Cap Ever

FILE - Nadia Hanan Madalo, center, hugs her brother Gassan Kakooz at the airport after arriving from Iraq, March 15, 2017, in San Diego. Madalo and her family, refugees forced to flee after the Islamic State invaded several years ago, arrived in San Diego

The White House has made it official: The annual cap on refugees coming into the United States in fiscal year 2018 will be 45,000. Calling it the “America First Refugee Program,” the late Friday announcement says it is “a level that upholds the safety of the American people.”

The new limit, which was submitted to Congress earlier in the week, puts the United States on track to accept fewer refugees in fiscal 2018 than in the past 37 years that the current refugee program, known as USRAP (United States Refugee Admission Program), has been in existence.

The White House said Friday that the decision was made after consulting with the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, and the president’s national security team.

White House: Safety first

It said the new ceiling is “designed to accommodate additional vetting procedures” designed to “thoroughly and safely process applicants for potential threats to public safety and national security.”

The announcement also said, “With this new ceiling, the United States will continue to permanently resettle more refugees than any other country, and we will continue to offer protection to the most vulnerable, including those who have been persecuted because of race, political opinion, nationality, religion, or membership in a particular social group.”

The White House also said the decision “reflects the need to concentrate limited resources on the approximately 270,000 aliens who have applied for asylum but have not been properly vetted, and are already present in the United States.”

Refugees: ‘Pillar of national security’

Last year, the administration of President Barack Obama set the cap on refugees at 110,000, but the incoming administration of Donald Trump in January issued an executive order reducing the cap to 50,000, saying more refugees would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

A bipartisan group of 34 U.S. senators, including former presidential candidates John McCain and Bernie Sanders, sent a letter to the White House on Monday, calling the refugee program “a critical pillar of our national security and our foreign policy.” It said 50,000 “is insufficient when compared to the millions of people who have been forced to flee their countries.”

Questioned earlier this week about the prospect of a 45,000 cap, refugee advocates also reacted with dismay.

David Robinson, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, called the new refugee cap “shamefully low.” He called the change “a retreat from global leadership” that “undermines both our interests and our values.”

Linda Hartke, who heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement agency, said the measure would be “callous and tragic.”

“We are not afraid of our new neighbors and are not fooled by cruel and false claims that refugees are a threat to our safety,” she said this week.

Legislative remedy

She said if members of Congress want to push back, there are legislative ways to do it.

“There are avenues,” she said. “Whether there are elected officials who choose to exercise those, I don’t know.”

A proposal put forth by the conservative Heritage Foundation last week suggests that federal lawmakers should “reassert congressional leadership in refugee policy,” and establish parameters for the executive branch based on historical levels. It also suggested that private sponsorship could be used to bolster the refugee program.

VOA immigration reporter Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.