The al-Qassab family, Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul, at Beirut international airport ahead of their travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017.
The al-Qassab family, Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul, at Beirut international airport ahead of their travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017.

They pleaded in a letter to President Donald Trump.

“Refugees have reinvigorated our economies, brought innovation to our towns, and made our communities stronger,” read the note, signed by hundreds of elected officials from across the country  “The significant decline in refugee arrivals this year has had a negative impact on communities.”

By the end of next month, the White House will have determined the maximum number of refugees that could be allowed into the United States in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. 

The letter to the president signed by 270 local and state politicians from 42 of the 50 U.S. states, requested that 75,000 refugees be admitted in the coming fiscal year.  

The bipartisan group included governors and hundreds of local officials from around the country, like school board members and mayors.

In June, 31 senators - all but one who are Democrats - made a similar plea to the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to increase refugee admissions. 

As among elected officials, the American public is divided on the refugee issue along party lines. During the first year of the Trump administration, the split among Americans regarding refugee acceptance became more polarized, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report. Roughly a quarter of Republicans believe the country has a responsibility to accept refugees, down from 35 percent the year before; among Democrats, 74 percent believe there is a responsibility to welcome refugees, up from 71 percent in 2017.

But between the massive cuts to the program since Trump took office and the administration’s repeated suspicions of refugees as a national security threat, the outlook is bleak for the decades-long program, which was until last year the most robust third-country resettlement program in the world. 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a dinner wit
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a dinner with business leaders at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Aug. 7, 2018.

Groups behind letter

Some of the most active groups in promoting refugee admissions organized the letter — Amnesty International USA, the International Refugee Assistance Project,  which has been part of several lawsuits against the Trump administration related to immigration and refugee cases — and two major refugee resettlement groups, HIAS and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The country could have allowed 45,000 refugees in this fiscal year, a fraction of those in need of resettlement, but still ahead of other nations that participate. Instead, though, from Oct. 1 to Aug. 15 — with a month and a half remaining in the fiscal year — 18,738 refugees entered the United States, in staggering juxtaposition to more than three decades when, in some years, the number topped 100,000. That was former President Barack Obama’s intention during his last months in office, when he set the admissions ceiling for refugees at 110,000. 

But Trump's team, focused on swift and drastic cuts to the program, began curbing arrivals within the new president's first week in office. 

And it’s not just the overall number that has changed. Who the refugees are, where they come from, and what religion they identify as has changed, as well. The country is accepting a record-low number of Muslim refugees, and a record-high number of Christians

Prospect for FY2019

The New York Times reported earlier this month that one ceiling being considered for FY2019 is 25,000, meaning the actual number of arrivals would likely be lower than that. 

Proponents of lowering the number of refugees, or dismantling the program entirely, overlap often with groups who encourage lower immigration levels overall for the United States, a path the Trump administration appears to be taking. 

The president consults with Cabinet members and departments, namely the U.S. State Department, but has broad power over the refugee ceiling every year.  At a news briefing last week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to a question about refugees, said Trump “wants to make sure whoever comes into the country, we know who they are, why they’re coming and that they pose no danger or threat to Americans.”

The White House has yet to provide data supporting the claim that refugees are a “threat” or “danger” to the United States. The refugee vetting process is one of the lengthiest and most involved screening procedures in the U.S. immigration system.