Trump lowers US refugee cap to new record low as 80 million are displaced worldwide

Protesters gather outside the Trump Building at 40 Wall St. to take action against America's refugee ban in New York City, U.S., March 28, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

President Donald Trump has again slashed the United States refugee resettlement ceiling to a new record low, setting the cap at 15,000 refugees that can be resettled in the U.S. in fiscal year 2021.

In a memorandum for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Republican president set the ceiling for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1 and will expire on Sept. 30, 2021, “after appropriate consultations with the Congress.” According to the memorandum, a report on the proposed cap was sent to Congress on Sept. 30. 

“The admission of up to 15,000 refugees to the United States during FY 2021 is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest,” the memorandum states. “This refugee admissions ceiling incorporates more than 6,000 unused places from the FY 2020 refugee admissions ceiling that might have been used if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The determination comes as there has been much opposition from faith-based refugee resettlement organizations who have had to scale down their operations in recent years as the Trump administration exponentially decreased the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. during his first term. 

Trump set the refugee ceiling at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, down from a ceiling of 30,000 in fiscal year 2019, 45,000 in fiscal year 2018, and 50,000 in the fiscal year 2017. 

By comparison, the Obama administration resettled 99,183 refugees in its last full fiscal year in office (2016). 

In the fiscal year 2020, under 11,000 refugees were resettled as the Trump administration temporarily halted immigration to the U.S. because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, the U.S. has resettled over 3 million refugees. Currently, the U.S. is facing a backlog of refugees who have already been vetted and are waiting to be resettled. According to a September report from The Wall Street Journal, there were as many as 120,000 refugees awaiting possible resettlement to the U.S.

According to the United Nations, there are over 26 million refugees and 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. 

Many advocates, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and evangelical resettlement agencies, have called for the U.S. refugee resettlement cap to be raised to around 95,000 per fiscal year. 

Trump’s memorandum was signed just one week before the Nov. 3 election in which he is counting on strong support from conservative evangelicals and faith-based voters who heavily backed him in 2016 in light of his promises related to issues of abortion and religious freedom. 

While the Trump administration has touted its record of promoting religious freedom overseas and its goal of ensuring religious minorities can return to their homelands, conservative evangelical leader Tony Perkins, in his capacity of USCIRF vice chair, stated earlier this year that “resettlement to the United States through an appropriate process that ensures America's safety and security must continue to be available for those refugees who remain in life-threatening danger and unable to go back to their countries of origin, including religious minorities."

In 2019, Perkins said the commission was “alarmed” by plans to reduce the resettlement ceiling. 

World Relief, an evangelical refugee resettlement agency and humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, warns that many of those displaced worldwide are facing greater hardships and difficulties due to COVID-19 and natural disasters. 

“The issuance of the lowest refugee ceiling in history is further evidence of the administration’s lack of compassion toward vulnerable refugees and immigrants who are displaced due to conflict and persecution and facing even more dire circumstances due to COVID-19,” World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said in a statement.

He continued, “Despite this administration’s clear promises to protect persecuted Christians, the actual resettlement of Christian refugees from countries known for persecution drop about 90% in some cases over the last four years. We have abandoned our moral responsibility to honor our word and help the vulnerable.”

World Relief further contends that the administration’s position that 6,000 unused spots from the fiscal year 2020 refugee determination will be counted toward the ceiling in the fiscal year 2021 is an “unprecedented position by the State Department.” 

Trump’s memorandum also states that refugee admissions during fiscal year 2021 will be allocated “among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States.” 

Under the plan, 5,000 refugees who “have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion” or are within a category of aliens established under the Lautenberg and Specter Amendments will be resettled to the U.S.

Additionally, the plan caps at 4,000 refugees from Iraq who aided the U.S. and 1,000 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. 

World Relief argues that the new categories created for refugee admissions will “limit those who are eligible” to be resettled and could have an impact on “large numbers of Congolese refugees, unaccompanied minors and others.”

“This decision by the administration does not represent the values that America was founded on — like human liberty, religious freedom and equality that should extend to those facing persecution abroad,” World Relief CEO Tim Breene said in a statement. “If our nation promises to be a country under God, then we must help our hurting neighbors and allow more refugees to resettle in the United States.”

After the State Department sent its refugee ceiling proposal to Congress in September, leaders from seven evangelical organizations released a joint statement criticizing the plan through the Evangelical Immigration Table. 

Among the signatories are leaders from World Relief, NAE, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Bethany Christian Services, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Faith and Community Empowerment. The leaders voiced concern that the limit on refugee resettlement will prevent some families from reuniting. 

“This historic low will leave families separated and many refugees in precarious situations across the world, including the Sayhoons, a Pakistani Christian couple waiting to reunite,” a joint statement from the Evangelical Immigration Table reads. 

“Mrs. Sayhoon fled Pakistan in 2012 when her husband, who ran a blog that told stories of fellow persecuted Pakistani Christians, sent her to Sri Lanka with the little money they had. Because of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, she resettled to the U.S. through World Relief. But her husband continues to fear for his safety in a Sri Lankan refugee camp, waiting for his resettlement application to be approved.”

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