Democrats to Trump: Time Running Out to Consult Congress on FY2018 Refugee Admissions

By Patrick Goodenough | September 14, 2017 | 4:23 AM EDT

U.N. refugee agency staff organizing the relocation of Yazidi refugees in Greece last December. (Photo: UNHCR/Christos Tolis)

(CNSNews.com) – Two senior Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter reminding the Trump administration Wednesday that it is obliged to consult with Congress on its planned refugee admission numbers for the coming fiscal year – and has less than three weeks to do so.

Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed concern about reports that President Trump is considering setting an “abysmally low” ceiling of 50,000 refugees in FY 2018.

In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, Feinstein and Durbin pointed out that U.S. law requires the administration to consult with Congress before the start of each fiscal year on its refugee admission plans for that year.

“To date, we have not received a proposed refugee admissions plan for fiscal year 2018 or received any cooperation from your agencies in scheduling the refugee consultation,” they wrote, asking for that to happen promptly.

The Immigration and Nationality Act requires the president to submit a report to the House and Senate Judiciary committees before the start of each fiscal year, on the “foreseeable number of refugees” needing resettlement in the coming year and the “anticipated allocation of refugee admissions.”

“To the extent possible,” that should take place at least two weeks before “appropriate consultation” ensues, in the form of discussions with designated cabinet-level representatives, the INA says.

Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the annual refugee admission cap set by administrations has never been as low as the 50,000 Trump is reported to be considering. The lowest ceiling over that period was 67,000 in 1986.

Actual admissions did fall well below the ceilings in the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, dropping to 27,131 in FY 2002 and 28,403 the following year – far beneath the 70,000 ceiling set for each of those years.

(Graph: CNSNews.com/Data: State Department Refugee Processing Center)

The last time the number of admissions dropped below 50,000 was in 2007, when 48,282 refugees were resettled.

In the fall of 2016, President Obama in his last refugee report to Congress set a ceiling of 110,000 refugee admissions for FY 2017. Had it been met, that would have been the highest number of refugees resettled in the U.S. since 1994, when the ceiling was 121,000 and the number admitted was 112,981.

But shortly after his inauguration Trump in an executive order shot down Obama’s ceiling, capping FY 2017 refugee admissions at 50,000. Allowing more than that number, the order said, “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Trump’s ceiling has been exceeded – 52,061 refugees have been admitted as of Wednesday – because a Supreme Court ruling prohibits the exclusion of applicants with a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” irrespective of whether admitting them exceeds the 50,000 cap.

‘We must not retreat’

In their letter to the three cabinet members, the two senators challenged the administration’s approach to refugee admissions, saying that “the U.S. has a long history of welcoming the most vulnerable refugees from among all those who have been displaced due to war, conflict, or persecution.”

Resettlement had enjoyed strong bipartisan support, they wrote, noting that the U.S. had taken in more than 100,000 refugees each year during the George H.W. Bush administration. (The admission numbers for fiscal years 1990-1993 were 122,066, 113,389, 132,531 and 119,448).

Feinstein and Durbin cited the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as reporting that there were 22.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2016, the highest number since World War II.

They said conflicts and crises in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Burundi, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere “are the source of a significant number of these refugees,” and also pointed closer to home to the political crisis in Venezuela and extreme violence in Central America.

“Given the magnitude of these crises, our nation must be strong and we must not retreat from our generous humanitarian traditions.”

The largest annual number of refugees admitted to the U.S. was 207,116 in 1980, the year President Carter signed the Refugee Act.

The number dropped over the next two years to below 100,000. Since then, they have exceeded that number only six times, between fiscal years 1989-1994.

The average annual number since 1980 has been 80,203 – although if the unusually high number for 1980 is excluded the average is 76,773.

Regions of origin of refugees admitted the U.S. have changed significantly over the decades since 1980.

In the 1980s the vast majority were from Asia – mostly southeast Asia – and it was only in 1989 that the numbers from the former Soviet Union came close to matching those from Asia, eventually surpassing them in 1992, 1994 and 1996.

In 2008 the Near East/South Asia overtook others as the region accounting for the highest number of U.S. refugee admissions.

That has continued to be the case every year since, although Africa is closing on Near East/South Asia this year (20,728 from Near East/South Asia compared to 19,481 from Africa, as of September 8).


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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow