Administration Sets Record-Low Refugee Admission Ceiling; Will Prioritize Asylum Applications of Those Already in the US

Patrick Goodenough | September 17, 2018 | 8:07pm EDT
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Young refugees from South Sudan at a U.N. transit center in northern Uganda. (Photo: UNHCR/Will Swanson)

( – The Trump administration has proposed a refugee admission ceiling for fiscal year 2019 of 30,000 – which would be the lowest ceiling set by an administration since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980 – but is arguing that that number should be viewed in the context of broader humanitarian programs.

Specifically, the administration says it wants to prioritize helping displaced people closer to their home countries, and to focus also on addressing a backlog of more than 800,000 individuals already in the United States with pending asylum cases.

In the coming fiscal year, therefore, it proposes to admit up to 30,000 refugees but also process more than 280,000 asylum-seekers already in the U.S., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the State Department on Monday.

The proposed 30,000 refugee admission ceiling compares to one of 45,000 in FY 2018, which was itself a record low in the almost four decades since the Refugee Act’s passage.

As of Monday – with just 13 days of the fiscal year to go – the actual number of admissions in FY 2018 stands at just 20,918, according to State Department Refugee Processing Center data.

That is by far the lowest number of admissions since 1980: The next smallest number was in FY 2002, when 27,131 refugees were resettled (61 percent fewer than that year’s ceiling of 70,000 – a disparity attributed to security concerns after 9/11.)

Includes proposed FY 2019 ceiling, FY 2018 admission numbers up until Sept. 17, 2018 (Graph: / Data: State Department/Migration Policy Institute)

In comments seen as an attempt to preempt anticipated criticism, Pompeo said the refugee admission ceiling should not be viewed in isolation.

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

Pompeo said other countries highlight their assistance both to refugees and asylum-seekers – and the U.S. should do the same.

“This year’s refugee ceiling reflects the substantial increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in our country, leading to a massive backlog of outstanding asylum cases and greater public expense.”

“In consideration of both U.S. national security interests and the urgent need to restore integrity to our overwhelmed asylum system, the United States will focus on addressing humanitarian protection cases of those already in the country.”

International law defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her home country and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

An asylum-seeker is someone seeking international protection but whose claim has not been finalized. Not all asylum-seeker are recognized and resettled as refugees.

As Pompeo observed, other countries that take in sizeable numbers of displaced people usually cite both refugee and asylum seeker admissions.

For instance the European Union’s statistical agency Eurostat reports that the 28 member-states resettled just 23,925 refugees in total in calendar year 2017, but during the same period also made positive decisions on asylum applications for 538,120 individuals.

Pompeo said that since 2000, more than 1.5 million people have been admitted as refugees or granted asylum in the United States.

“Since 2001, the U.S. has permanently admitted 4.1 million total lawful permanent residents from refugee-producing nations.”

Hundreds of thousands of people had received temporary or permanent humanitarian protection under other immigration categories, such as victims of human trafficking and special immigrant juveniles.

The total U.S. humanitarian assistance worldwide in FY 2017 was more than $8 billion, “more than any other country.”

‘Defective’ vetting

Pompeo said the 30,000 refugee admission ceiling for the fiscal year starting October 1 “reflects our commitment to protect the most vulnerable around the world while prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of the American people, as President Trump has directed.”

He stressed the importance of security vetting for applicants, “to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country.”

Previous vetting procedures have been shown to be “defective,” he said, pointing to the admission this year of a foreign national who was later found to be a member of ISIS, along with others who had criminal backgrounds.

Pompeo said the more than 68 million people forcibly displaced worldwide were far more than could ever be resettled or granted asylum status in host countries each year.

It was critical to make it clear that U.S. support for the most vulnerable extends well beyond the U.S. immigration system.

He said the U.S. was maintaining its “enduring humanitarian commitments, by working to assist refugees and other displaced people as close to their home countries as possible, thereby increasing the number of displaced people who receive aid and protection.”

FY 2018 admission numbers up until Sept. 17, 2018. (Graph: / Data: State Department)

The U.S. will prioritize efforts to enable the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their countries of origin, “if and when conditions permit – a solution most refugees prefer”

“The best way to help most people is to promote burden-sharing with partners and allies, to work to end conflicts that drive displacement in the first place, and to target the application of foreign aid in a smarter way.”

Pompeo said the focus on helping refugees overseas also allows the U.S. to maximize its resources. “We can house, feed and provide medical care for hundreds of thousands more refugees closer to their homes, and do so more rapidly than we could possibly do here in the United States.”

He said the “improved refugee policy” of the Trump administration serves the U.S. national interest and expands its ability to help the needy around the world.

“We will continue to assist the world’s most vulnerable while never losing sight of our first duty – serving the American people.”

“We are, and continue to be, the most generous nation in the world.”

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