VOA immigration reporter Ramon Taylor contributed to this report from New York.
The U.S. is on track to resettle roughly one in five refugees it could admit from the Middle East and Latin America this fiscal year, signaling regional disparities that are widening faster and more continuously than at any other period in nearly 20 years.
A review of U.S. State Department data by VOA this week shows that from Oct. 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019, the country resettled 14% of the 3,000 refugee spots allocated for refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean this fiscal year, and 16% of the 9,000 spots for refugees from the Middle East and South Asia.
At the same time, the U.S. is on track to fill the allocations for European (3,000) and East Asian (4,000) refugees, and surpass its allotment for African (11,000) refugees.
Asked about the differences in arrivals of refugees from different regions, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement that "refugee admissions rarely proceed at a steady pace throughout the year and are often higher in the second half of the year. The regional allocations are based on planning estimates at the beginning of each fiscal year. Arrivals from any one region often are higher or lower than the planned allocation."
That allocations are going over the limit in some regions and under in others "points to the sort of intentional … and even if not intentional, discriminatory effect we're looking at," said Denise Bell, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, who recently interviewed refugees in Jordan and Lebanon to understand the impact of U.S. policies on those awaiting resettlement.
A VOA review of data since fiscal 2001 showed that in most years, 75% to 100% of the allocated spots for each region were filled, and never did a region drop below that threshold for three years in a row.
With 3½ months left in the fiscal year, there is little optimism among refugee advocates that the numbers for Latin American and Middle Eastern refugees will rebound. The U.S. could also fall short of the so-called "ceiling" on the number of refugees that will be admitted this fiscal year: 30,000. That figure is already at a historic low in the 30 years of the country's formal refugee program.
Permanent resettlement is needed when refugees cannot return to their home countries and have needs that cannot be met in the countries where they sought asylum. UNHCR estimated that in 2019, 1.4 million refugees would need permanent resettlement, a 17% increase over the previous year.
Polls show division
While President Donald Trump and his Cabinet have backed policies drastically curbing the U.S. refugee program, Americans are split. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 51% believe the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees. That figure was down from 56% the previous year. Along political party lines, however, the numbers are increasingly disparate: Among Republicans, just 26% felt the U.S. had that responsibility. For Democrats surveyed, it was 74% — a wider gap between the two sides than a year earlier.
Since fiscal 2001, the U.S. government has filled on average nearly three of every four admission spots set by the president each September. Other than a slump in the two fiscal years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the U.S. has not seen such a precipitous drop in overall refugee admissions as it has under the Trump administration, or in more than one region for three consecutive fiscal years, as it has with Latin America and the Middle East.
Researchers like Bell point to two primary reasons for the regional decreases. In the case of Latin America, the decrease resulted from the end of the Central American Minors (CAM) program in November 2017. It allowed some children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the Northern Triangle countries from which the current spike in families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border stems — a pathway to apply for refugee resettlement in the United States while still in their home countries.
It was a way to prevent the dangers children would face in attempting the lengthy trek north to be reunited with a parent who, according to the terms of the program, had to be lawfully present in the U.S.
In April 2019, the Trump administration agreed to allow 2,700 Central American children who were already in the CAM application process when the program was canceled to reunite with their parents in the U.S.
Limit within reach
Depending on the speed with which those children's travel plans are finalized, there could be an uptick in Latin America's refugee numbers before the end of the fiscal year in September. With 409 of 3,000 refugee spots for the region filled by the end of May, the U.S. could meet or slightly surpass the limit if every CAM child is resettled by then.
Noah Gottschalk, associate director for campaigns and public mobilization at the International Rescue Committee, said that when Trump administration officials suggest supporting a way to process refugees "in-country" — that is, before they leave their home countries — they are ignoring that the CAM program existed.
"We had a program for that, and they eliminated it," said Gottschalk. No one, he added, wants "to see children embarking on that dangerous journey."
While the needs for refugee resettlement vary from year to year based on which conflicts emerge or taper off, some of the largest refugee populations currently are Muslims, or those from Muslim-majority countries.
"If you look at our largest refugee situation, which is the Syria crisis," said UNHCR New York director Ninette Kelley, "it's Turkey, it's Lebanon, it's Jordan that are bearing the disproportionate load in terms of providing safety and security for these people."
For Middle East refugees, the paper trail from Trump's inauguration to the current low figure of 1,460 out of 9,000 refugees resettled in fiscal 2019 winds through a series of executive orders and proclamations straight from the president: The policy changes he demanded targeted several countries in conflict that are a source for refugees, like Syria.
That the shrinking U.S. refugee program is accepting fewer Middle East refugees — and fewer Muslim refugees — is well-documented in the U.S. State Department's own data.
An IRC review of refugee admissions for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 reached a similar conclusion: Christian refugees declined by 36% percent while admissions of Muslim refugees declined by 85%.
"If you look at refugees that come from the Muslim majority countries that have been targeted from the original Muslim ban [Trump's first travel ban in January 2017], they disproportionately bear the impact of this administration's policies," Bell said.
"The bottleneck," Bell said of Middle East refugees, "is in the security checks. That's where you go into the black hole."
The U.S. intensely vets refugees before admission through security and medical screenings. But after a moratorium on refugees from certain countries in 2017 and added screening measures in 2018 for refugees from 11 countries, the numbers did not rebound — even to the U.S. government's own lowered estimates at the beginning of fiscal 2019.
"Yes, it's better not to be in a war zone," Bell said of refugees awaiting resettlement. "But it doesn't mean that you have a quality of life that anyone should have."