The Trump administration is likely to set the United States’ ceiling for admitting refugees at approximately half of what it was last year, according to two knowledgeable former Trump administration officials and several refugee advocates familiar with internal debates. And last year’s quota was the lowest level for refugees since 1980—all while a migration crisis unfolds worldwide.
The administration doesn’t officially have a refugee number set on paper yet, sources said, and officials don’t have to reach a formal decision until September. But they’re sending signals internally and to outside interlocutors that the next year’s cap on refugee admissions will be between 20,000 and 25,000 people, according to these ex-officials and advocates. That’s about half of the 45,000-refugee ceiling the Trump administration set last year, and four to five times lower than the Obama administration’s final-year refugee ceiling of 110,000.
“I feel like it’s a really dark moment, so fundamentally un-American,” said Barbara Strack, who until January 2018 was a senior Department of Homeland Security official overseeing refugee admissions.
Strack and other ex-officials say they’re worried about a downward spiral in the United States’ ability to admit vulnerable people fleeing dire conditions of war, extreme poverty, persecution, or natural disaster. Lowered admissions ceilings can lead to the U.S. cutting off resources for resettling refugees, which can in turn prompt anti-refugee officials to cite the diminished capacity for lowering the ceilings further—sparking a structural degeneration in infrastructure for admitting refugees that threatens to outlive the Trump administration.
“We’ve completely abandoned leadership [on refugees] and a commitment to their protection at a time when world needs couldn’t be higher,” Strack added. “That’s not a good national security posture. There’s a fundamental notion of otherness for refugees, as opposed to saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
“I feel like it’s a really dark moment, so fundamentally un-American... We’ve completely abandoned leadership [on refugees] and a commitment to their protection at a time when world needs couldn’t be higher.”
— Barbara Strack, former Homeland Security official
For those involved in the administration’s restrictionist approach to refugees and those who work to mitigate it, the likely lowered next ceiling represents a victory for White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. Miller, an immigration hardliner, has exerted substantial influence in the administration’s refugee and migration debates despite not having a formal brief for foreign policy or national security.
“The determining factor here is the desire among policymakers in this administration to drive the refugee admission program down to very small numbers, if not wipe it out entirely,” said Steve Pomper, a human-rights official on Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
Last September, the Trump administration set a refugee admissions quota of 45,000, severely down from its Obama administration predecessor. That followed President Trump’s January and March 2017 executive orders, which declared that admitting more than 50,000 refugees “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
During internal debates, three knowledgeable current and former officials say, Miller and his allies pushed for even lower numbers on refugee admissions—as low as 15,000 refugees. To push back, career officials responsible for refugee vetting and admissions used Trump’s stated 50,000 quota as an anchor and ended up adopting 45,000 as the highest amount possible.
They described a chaotic process that angered key legislators of both partieswith belated notification to Capitol Hill. “It is simply unacceptable to read in the press that the administration had reached its decision on the refugee cap before the mandated meeting with Congress had even been scheduled,” Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein said in a joint Sept. 27 statement.
But the 45,000 ceiling was just that: a ceiling. For the past several months, it’s been clear that the actual total admissions will fall closer to the floor. State Department refugee data extrapolated to the end of September, when the fiscal year turns over, indicate that the U.S. will actually admit something like 20,000 to 21,000 refugees.
That’s not because of any decline in the number of people seeking refuge in the United States. It’s thanks to a raft of self-imposed bureaucratic restrictions, resulting in “a huge slowdown in refugee admissions,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president for policy at the International Rescue Committee, one of the State Department’s nine contracted agencies for resettling refugees.