State Dep’t Defends Heavily-Criticized, Record-Low Limit on Refugee Admissions

By Patrick Goodenough | October 2, 2020 | 4:34am EDT
Refugees in a displaced persons camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Refugees in a displaced persons camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid criticism over the Trump administration’s move to set a new record-low limit of 15,000 refugee admissions in fiscal year 2021 – reducing the annual ceiling for the fifth consecutive time – the State Department said Thursday the proposal reflected a “continuing commitment to prioritize the safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

It also took into account a massive backlog of asylum-seeker cases, it said, referring to more than 1.1 million people already inside the U.S. whose applications for asylum are pending (as opposed to applicants for refugee status, who apply outside the country for resettlement through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.)

The department said in its announcement it expected “more than 290,000” new asylum claims to be received during FY 2021, which began on Thursday.

It also contended that the number of refugees resettled should not be seen in isolation from broader U.S. humanitarian-based immigration activity.

“In line with the [2017] U.S. National Security Strategy, we are working to assist refugees and other displaced people as close to their homes as possible until they can safely and voluntarily return to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their countries,” the department said, adding that the U.S. provided more than $9 billion in humanitarian assistance in FY 2019.

In FY 2020, the administration resettled 11,814 refugees in the U.S., according to State Department Refugee Processing Center data, the lowest annual number in more than 40 years.

The new fiscal year’s proposed refugee resettlement plans were provided to Congress by the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. After consultation with the Senate and House judiciary committees, the White House will issue the president’s determination.

The proposed FY 2021 cap of 15,000 refugees is the lowest set by any administration since the modern-day refugee admission program began in 1980. Each of the previous four ceilings also set new record lows at the time when they were announced: 18,000 refugees in FY 2020, 30,000 in FY 2019, 45,000 in FY 2018, and 50,000 in FY 2017.

 

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was among those slamming the proposed limit for FY 2021.

“The U.S. was once a humanitarian leader, providing safety to refugees fleeing violence and persecution,” she said. “The Trump administration is now turning its back on that tradition, slashing the number of refugees who can enter our country. It’s a sad and heartless act of betrayal.”

Criticism also came from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, comprising 55 national, faith-based organizations, which called on Congress to urge the administration to “increase the proposed refugee admissions goal to 95,000, in line with historic norms.”

“Refugee resettlement is not a partisan issue. Each day that resettlement is paused is a matter of life and death for the thousands of refugees waiting to rebuild their lives,” said the Rev. John McCullough, president and CEO of Church World Service, a member of the coalition.

“Congress must not overlook this blatant disregard for human life and our legal process,” he said. “They must demand that they be consulted as soon as possible and that the refugee program be restored.”

The report submitted to Congress says there will be specific allocations for applicants for refugee status who have suffered or fear persecution on the basis of religion; for Iraqis whose assistance to the U.S. put them in danger; for applicants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; and for applicants from Hong Kong, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Over the four decades since the 1980 Refugee Act was enacted, the highest ceiling – 231,700 refugees – was set in FY 1980. The next two highest limits to be established were 217,000 refugees in FY 1981, and 142,000 in FY 1993.

(Graph: CNSNews.com/Data: State Department/Migration Policy Institute)
(Graph: CNSNews.com/Data: State Department/Migration Policy Institute)

The yearly ceilings determined by presidents most often were 70,000 refugees (11 times) and 80,000 refugees (five times). The average for the ceiling over the 40-year period is 89,993 refugees. (The average for actual admissions over the 40 years was somewhat lower, 77,563 refugees.)

In FY 2020, the administration resettled 11,814 refugees in the U.S., according to State Department Refugee Processing Center data, the lowest annual number in more than 40 years.

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