Record-Low Proposed Refugee Admission Ceiling Could Change, State Dep’t Says

By Patrick Goodenough | September 19, 2018 | 4:20am EDT
A U.N. refugee agency camp in Garmawa, Iraq’s Ninawa province. (Photo: UNHCR/S.Baldwin)

( – The State Department said Tuesday that the Trump administration’s proposed ceiling of 30,000 refugee admissions in the upcoming fiscal year is just that – a proposal – and the figure could be amended by the president, following consultations with Congress.

“This is simply a proposal that was put forward to Congress on the part of the administration,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said of the announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday.

After consultations with Congress, she said, “the president will then be able to make his determination.”

Therefore the 30,000 figure given by Pompeo “may not be the final number,” Nauert added.

The proposed ceiling has drawn strong criticism from refugee advocacy groups – including the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Refugee Council USA, Human Rights First, World Relief and Refugees International – and many are calling on the U.S. Congress to reject it.

“Tell them to push the administration to admit at least 75,000,” the International Rescue Committee urged its supporters, citing a number that is being advocated by a number of agencies working with refugees, backed by hundreds of state and local officials.

For the financial years 1980-2016, the average ceiling was 98,519, while the average number of actual admissions stood at 83,230.

The figures changed markedly under President Trump, who in an executive order days after taking office lowered the Obama administration’s proposed FY 2017 cap from 110,000 to 50,000, and then a year ago set a ceiling for FY 2018 of 45,000 – the lowest since the Refugee Act was enacted in 1980.

The proposed cap for FY 2019 of 30,000 marks a new record low.

The actual number of refugees resettled in the U.S. during the current fiscal year was significantly fewer than the 45,000 ceiling set last fall.

As of early Wednesday – 11 days before the end of FY 2018 – a total of 21,058 refugees have been admitted, according to the State Department Refugee Processing Center.

Countries accounting for the largest intakes are the Democratic Republic of Congo (7,365 refugees admitted), Burma (3,349), Ukraine (2,399), Bhutan (2,228) and Eritrea (1,156).

Other countries of origin include Afghanistan (774), Pakistan (408), Somalia (253), Iraq (134) and Syria (60).

The 21,058 refugees resettled so far this fiscal year are the fewest admitted in any one year since the Refugee Act set the current refugee program in place 38 years ago. (In FY 1977, 19,946 were resettled.)

Before this year, the smallest number of arrivals since 1980 took place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: The FY 2002 ceiling was 70,000 but only 27,131 refugees were resettled that year.

Consultation criticism

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) 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 and the “anticipated allocation of refugee admissions.”

The committees have been frustrated in the past by the way administrations have carried out the consultation process, and this year is no exception.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday criticized the administration for announcing the proposed ceiling “at a public press briefing before consulting with Congress.”

“While I appreciate the administration’s commitment to protecting national security and public safety by proposing a refugee cap, which accounts for the need to conduct adequate and thorough screenings of all who seek this benefit, it is imperative the agencies abide by their statutory mandate to consult with Congress before any number is proposed,” he said.

The INA says that, “to the extent possible,” the refugee resettlement report should be submitted to the committees at least two weeks before “appropriate consultation,” involving designated cabinet-level representatives, takes place.

Last month Grassley and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), wrote to Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, seeking answers on how the administration plans to carry out this year’s statutorily required consultation process.

“The Executive Branch has failed to engage in a meaningful and appropriate consultation with Congressional leaders for decades, suggesting this problem is a systemic one,” they wrote. “The Executive Branch simply cannot continue to repeat these mistakes and must take steps to ensure that the consultation process is both consistent with federal law and meaningful.”

Feinstein on Tuesday also criticized the administration’s handling of the required consultation process, and in a joint statement with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also slammed the proposed 30,000 ceiling, calling it “embarrassingly low.”

“By refusing to do our part, the Trump administration is not only abandoning America’s long bipartisan history of humanitarian leadership, but also threatening national and regional security,” they said. “When the United States refuses to do its fair share, we encourage other nations to reject their obligation to resettle refugees.”

Nauert said Tuesday the State Department has “followed the law in presenting the information, the interagency report, to Congress.”

“The administration will have those consultations as required under the law with Congress, and I’m not going to get ahead of some of those conversations that take place.”

In his announcement Monday, Pompeo said that in addition to the proposed 30,000 refugee admissions the administration also wants to process more than 280,000 asylum-seekers already in the U.S. whose applications are pending.

“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,” he said.

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