Refugee admissions cut to 30,000 in fiscal 2019

September 18, 2018

The Trump administration said it will admit no more than 30,000 refugees next year, the lowest cap in history, making good on a presidential promise while enraging immigrant-rights activists who said the U.S. is shirking its global duty.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cast the new level a one-third cut compared to 2018 as a needed pause while the country gains a handle on security risks, and also deals with some 800,000 people already in the U.S. with pending asylum cases.

“The ultimate goal is the best possible care and safety of these people in need, and our approach is designed to achieve this noble objective,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The 30,000 level is only a ceiling, and the country could go even lower. Indeed, this year’s cap is 45,000, but with just weeks to go before the end of the fiscal year the government is on pace to accept less than half that amount.

Critics ranging from refugee advocates to congressional Democrats have called this year’s pace abominable, and were dismayed with next year’s number, saying it’s a major retreat from the Obama administration, when the State Department set a 110,000 ceiling for the final year.

“Quite simply, this decision will lead to innocent people dying,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who described the decision as “a heartless betrayal of American values.”

Activists said the decision is particularly troubling giving the scope of international need, with more than 25 million people categorized as refugees by the U.N.

“This decision is not informed by the global need, nor by America’s national security and foreign policy priorities. And it will not only harm refugees, whose lives are at risk, but also America’s interests abroad and at home,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

But accepting refugees has been deeply controversial in the U.S., where President Obama’s move to raise the cap in his final years drew a feverish backlash from security experts, and was part of the impetus for President Trump’s campaign promise of a travel ban.

American officials say criticism of the U.S. is based in part on a game of semantics.

Where other countries term all foreigners seeking humanitarian protections to be refugees, the U.S. breaks them down into two categories: Refugees are those who apply from outside the U.S., while asylum-seekers are refugees who manage to reach American soil and then apply.

When viewed that way, the U.S. will see 280,000 asylum-seekers next year in addition to the 30,000 refugee cap, Mr. Pompeo said.

And he said the U.S. is already struggling with 800,000 asylum petitions pending in the system a backlog that’s built up as people from Central America who would have been classified as illegal immigrants in previous years, and quickly deported, are now lodging asylum claims.

Mr. Pompeo said when refugees and asylees are counted together, the U.S. is “the most generous nation in the world.” He also said hundreds of thousands of people granted Temporary Protected Status while their countries recover from earthquakes, hurricanes, war or disease should be counted as part of America’s humanitarian efforts.

“Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world. This would be wrong,” he said.

The refugee program came under intense scrutiny in the final years of the last administration, particularly after Mr. Obama said the U.S. would start taking more people from Syria amid that country’s civil war and threats from the Islamic State.

Defenders of refugees say the are the most vetted of any foreigners the U.S. admits.

But security experts said there was no way to be sure of the identity of people attempting to enter from places like Syria, where the U.S. didn’t get cooperation from the government and where the chaos made it impossible to check back stories.

In Mr. Obama’s final full year overseeing refugees, the U.S. took in more than 12,000 from Syria and nearly 10,000 more from Iraq.

By contrast in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the U.S. has admitted just 60 from Syria and 132 from Iraq.

Mr. Pompeo, in announcing the lower refugee numbers Monday, pointed to security concerns.

He said one person with ties to the Islamic State managed to sneak in as a refugee from Iraq, and said other refugees have managed to conceal criminal backgrounds in their refugee cases.

“The American people must have complete confidence that everyone granted resettlement in our country is thoroughly vetted. The security checks take time, but they’re critical,” the secretary said.

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