On September 17, 2018, the Trump administration announced that the ceiling on refugee admissions in fiscal year (FY) 2019 (October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019) will be 30,000 — the smallest since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. In explaining the cut, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “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. The daunting operational reality of addressing the over 800,000 individuals in pending asylum cases demands renewed focus and prioritization.” As a reason to cut refugee resettlement, this statement does not stand up to serious scrutiny.
Unlike other parts of the US immigration system, refugee numbers are set through annual consultations between the President and Congress. They vary each year, usually in relationship to the level of resettlement needed worldwide, which is itself a measure of the total number of refugees globally. When the total number of refugees grows through a combination of new emergencies and protracted displacement of those who are already refugees, US refugee resettlement has generally increased. The opposite has happened as well, with US resettlement levels decreasing when there are fewer refugees to be resettled. While resettlement is not the only way in which the United States responds to global refugee challenges, it has been an important tool in encouraging countries that host much larger number of refugees to keep their borders open.
The September 17 announcement flies in the face of this logic. Today’s level of total displacement is the highest in all of the years measured by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to UNHCR, there are 68.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. Of these, 20 million are refugees under its own mandate, another five million are Palestinian refugees served by another UN agency, and three million are people who are currently seeking asylum (recognition as a refugee). These populations are all outside of their home countries, mostly living in mid- or low-income countries with few resources to assist or protect them. The remaining 40 million are internally displaced persons still living within their own countries although fleeing the same conflicts and persecution that produce refugees. US refugee law permits the resettlement of both refugees and those still in their home countries as long as they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution.
In the text quoted above, Secretary Pompeo argued that the United States cannot resettle more than 30,000 refugees because of the large number of people who have entered the country and requested asylum. Unlike resettled refugees who are approved for admission to the United States from abroad, asylum seekers arrive and request asylum on their own, either at the border or within one year after entering the country. It should be noted that though their arrival method differs, both refugees and asylum seekers are subject to intensive screening to determine: 1) whether they are truly refugees under US law; and 2) whether they would pose a security threat if admitted. It is true that the number of asylum seekers, particularly at the border, has increased in recent years. This is largely because of the growth in applications from people fleeing violence and repression in Central America and Venezuela. The overall number of people apprehended at the border is still at some of the lowest levels in decades — 310,531 in FY 2017, compared to 1,676,438 in FY 2000. Asylum seekers are a high proportion of the apprehended because many of those seeking protection in this country turn themselves into US authorities before attempting to cross the border.
Figure A: US Refugee Resettlement
This is not the first time that the United States has had to balance its international obligations to asylum seekers with its interest in admitting refugees from overseas. It is the first time, though, that resettlement has been sacrificed to concerns about asylum. Just months after passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established current legal frameworks for both refugee resettlement and asylum, the United States experienced boatlifts that brought 125,000 Cubans, as well as thousands of Haitians, to Florida. The country struggled to process and settle such a large number of people but it did not stop the resettlement of more than 200,000 Indochinese, Soviet, and other refugees that year and more than 160,000 in 1981. A second series of Cuban and Haitian boatlifts occurred in the 1990s, leading to deterrent actions to stem new arrivals. One of these measures was to expand in-country processing of Cubans and Haitians for refugee resettlement to provide an alternative mechanism by which those fleeing for their lives could reach the United States. President Barack Obama put in place a similar resettlement program after the large influx of unaccompanied minors arrived from the Northern Triangle of Central America in 2014 — a program that President Donald Trump ended after he took office, cutting off the more orderly admissions process for those fearing gang-based violence and persecution.
The current administration has pointed to the large and growing backlog in asylum applications pending in immigration court as further justification for lowering the resettlement ceiling. A similarly large backlog had accumulated in the early-1990s, with more than 425,000 applications pending by FY 1994, involving an estimated 1.2 million persons. Concerns about the backlog did not result in a reduction of resettlement slots, however, when wars in Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere along with the collapse of the Soviet Union produced a large increase in refugee movements. Indeed, under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, resettlement surpassed 100,000 per year.
Two conclusions might be reached from this analysis of the Trump administration’s decision to slash refugee resettlement admission numbers just as it is needed more than ever. One explanation is that this administration is far less competent than its predecessors in managing complex movements of people so it must make a tradeoff between resettlement and asylum. Another is that it is using asylum as a thinly veiled excuse to reduce overall immigration admissions. The result in either case is to leave thousands of refugees at risk, with no hope or opportunities for the future. This too the United States has done before when it closed its doors in the 1930s to many refugees from Nazi Germany. Since learning the lessons of the Holocaust, the United States has been the principal proponent of robust refugee protection, encouraging other countries through diplomacy, financial support, and most important, our own actions in receiving refugees to do the same. By lowering the ceiling on refugee admissions to the lowest levels in decades, President Trump undermines this longstanding strategy. This will harm not only the refugees but also global US leadership.