Trump Proposes Lowest Refugee Admission Ceiling in Decades

Patrick Goodenough | September 28, 2017 | 12:50am EDT
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Syrian refugees at the Domiz refugee camp near Dahuk in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. (Photo: UNHCR/B. Sokol)

( –  The Trump administration’s proposed ceiling of 45,000 refugees to be resettled in the United States in the new fiscal year is the lowest cap set since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980.

On Wednesday the administration sent to Congress a report on its refugee admission plans for FY 2018. The 45,000 ceiling is a 59 percent drop from the 110,000 cap set by the Obama administration a year ago for FY 2017. (President Trump’s January 27 executive order lowered that to 50,000.)

Since the law signed by President Carter in 1980 raised the annual ceiling from 17,400 to 50,000, the lowest cap until now was 67,000, set by the Reagan administration for FY 1986.

(Graph: / Data: State Department/Migration Policy Institute)

Although the ceiling of 45,000 is the lowest yet, that does not necessarily mean that the fiscal year which starts on Sunday will bring the smallest intake of refugees since 1980.

Actual admissions have often fallen below the ceiling set for that year, a pattern especially evident during the years immediately following 9/11.

In FY 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration admitted far fewer refugees than the 70,000 ceiling it set for each year.

In FY 2002, only 27,131 refugees were resettled, 61 percent fewer than the ceiling figure. In FY 2003 admissions rose slightly to 28,403, still 59 percent fewer than the ceiling.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that the aim in FY 2018 would be to admit refugee numbers as close to the ceiling as possible.

Asked about speculation that the administration would “slow-walk” processing and admission, and so end up with a number far lower than 45,000, the official – speaking on background during a conference call – said “unequivocally” that that was not the goal.

“We have every plan to process as many refugees as we can under this ceiling,” the official said, adding that having taken a look at requirements including new vetting standards, “we believe that we can get into the ballpark of this number, of this ceiling.”

More from Africa, fewer from Near East and South Asia

In Wednesday’s background briefing, an administration official said that in preparing its proposal for next year, “the security and safety of the American people is our chief concern.”

“While maintaining the United States leadership role in humanitarian protection, an integral part of this mission is to ensure that refugee resettlement opportunities only go to those who are eligible for such protection and who are not known to present a risk to the safety and security of our country,” the official said.

The FY 2018 proposal maintains a regional breakdown of admissions not dissimilar to that of recent years. It does allow for a slightly bigger intake from Africa, and smaller ones from the predominantly Muslim Near East/South Asia region, and from Europe/Central Asia.

(Graph: / Data: State Department Refugee Processing Center)

For next year, the administration proposes resettlement of 19,000 refugees (42.2 percent) from Africa, 17,500 (38.8 percent) from the Near East/South Asia, 5,000 (11.1 percent) from East Asia, 2,000 (4.4 percent) from Europe/Central Asia, and 1,500 (3.3 percent) from Latin America and the Caribbean.

By comparison, in FY 2017, the regional breakdown of admissions up until the end of August was: 37.6 percent from Africa, 40.2 percent from Near East/South Asia, 9.5 percent from East Asia, 9.6 percent from Europe/Central Asia, and 3.0 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The breakdown for admissions in FY 2016 – President Obama’s last full year – was: 37.2 percent from Africa, 41.8 percent from Near East/South Asia, 14.7 percent from East Asia, 4.6 percent from Europe/Central Asia, and 1.5 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean.

As of Wednesday, a total of 53,378 refugees have been admitted in FY 2017. While this is far below the 110,000 cap originally proposed by the Obama administration last fall, it is also slightly higher than Trump’s executive order limit of 50,000.

That’s because the Supreme Court ruled in June that refugee applicants who have a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” may not be barred from entry – even if admitting them breaks the 50,000 ceiling.


The Immigration and Nationality Act requires the president to submit a refugee admission report to the House and Senate Judiciary committees before the start of each fiscal year, ahead of “appropriate consultation” involving designated cabinet-level representatives. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke began that process on Wednesday.

Reaction was quick in coming from members of the House Judiciary Committee, and fell as expected along party lines.

“The Trump administration’s refugee ceiling for the coming year maintains our nation’s generosity toward those in need, and importantly, ensures limited resources are used wisely and our citizens are protected in light of ongoing terrorist threats,” committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said after meeting with Tillerson and Duke.

Goodlatte also called for passage of the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act, which among other things would give Congress, not the president, the final say in setting annual refugee admission ceilings. The bill was approved by the committee last June.

Committee ranking member Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), in a joint statement with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) called the proposed ceiling “an affront to the United States’ legacy as a protector of oppressed people.”

“Today’s decision turns our back on the world at a time when there are more refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons than at any time since World War II,” they said. “It is an abdication of our moral authority, and an abandonment of the very values that make America great.”

In the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a joint statement expressed frustration at the nature of this year’s consultation.

“We are incredibly frustrated that the annual consultation for refugee admissions, which is required by law, was finalized just one day in advance,” they said. “Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject. An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient.”

The Immigration and Nationality Act calls for the report to be submitted to the committees, “to the extent possible,” at least two weeks before the consultation.

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