WASHINGTON — President Trump proposed Wednesday that the U.S. admit 15,000 refugees for fiscal year 2021, lower than any previous caps since the refugee resettlement program’s inception in 1980.
“This is definitely the Trump administration’s attempt to grind our immigration system to a halt,” said American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative and Advocacy Counsel, Manar Waheed.
The State Department said in their announcement that they anticipate more than 300,000 refugees and asylum claims during the fiscal year, but only 5% of those applicants will be admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The cap would account for the 1.1 million asylum cases still in the backlog, the State Department said, to which they’ll be adding 290,000 more.
While President Trump has been steadily slashing the number of refugees admitted each fiscal year since his administration’s start, the proposed limit would admit 3,000 less refugees than the 18,000 cap of 2020 and 35,000 less than the 50,000 cap of 2017. Only 10,892 refugees were actually admitted in fiscal year 2020, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Historically, an average of 95,000 refugees have been admitted into the U.S. annually.
“The President’s proposal for refugee resettlement in fiscal year 2021 reflects the administration’s continuing commitment to prioritize the safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said the State Department in a memo.
Waheed said the number of refugees admitted shouldn’t be contingent on the coronavirus, which she said the administration has used as an excuse to stifle immigration for the past six months.
Julia Gelatt, Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the refugee program can be operated safely if refugees are tested for COVID-19 and self-isolate before traveling to the U.S.
“The refugee process is a slow process, and refugees go through heavy vetting and health checks,” Gelatt said. “It’s possible to operate a refugee program safely with enough care and attention and resources.”
Refugees International Government Relations Director Ann Hollingsworth said the proposal is an unsurprising step by the administration given its previous assaults on the refugee resettlement program, which she said is a “life-saving protection.” The cap will affect the sense of hope felt by refugees at a time when COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted them, said Alight CEO Daniel Wordsworth. “Now more than ever, refugees need our support,” he said.
According to UNHCR, about 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, 26 million of whom are refugees. Often, refugees flee war and persecution by living in camps without opportunities for employment or schooling, Gelatt said.
The State Department said that the U.S. will prioritize Iraqis who assisted United States forces, as well as refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Cuba and Venezuela.
“The United States has long been a leader in providing refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution around the globe,” said Kari Reid, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Mercy Corps. “The administration’s move today to slash refugee admissions to the lowest level ever undermines American values and further erodes the U.S. refugee resettlement program at a time of unprecedented displacement.”
On Sept. 9, Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin, along with representatives Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Lofgren, called on the Trump administration to consult Congress before setting the annual refugee admission target for fiscal year 2021. But the proposal was announced hours before the Oct. 1 deadline set by The Refugee Act of 1980 without consultation with Congress.
“What message does this send out to the world about what the United States thinks of refugees, and the signal that we are sending to others as needs are increasing for resettlement?” Hollingsworth said.