The Trump administration is expected to drastically reduce the number of refugees that will be allowed into the United States in the coming year, VICE News has learned. Multiple sources, including an official in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) with direct knowledge of the situation, say Trump plans to cap refugee admissions for the 2018 fiscal year at no more than 50,000. That limit would be the fewest in modern history, and less than half as many as President Obama authorized last year. The world is currently in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with more than 65 million displaced people fleeing conflict, climate change, and extreme poverty.
Trump hasn’t yet made a final decision on refugee admissions, the sources said, but according to the USRAP official, “it won’t exceed 50,000” and could even be fewer. White House officials and members of the National Security Council were scheduled to discuss the refugee cap Tuesday, and an official announcement could come as soon as this week.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on “internal discussions” about refugees. The State Department, which oversees U.S. refugee resettlement programs, told VICE News the cap would be set “after appropriate consultation with Congress” and before the start of the 2018 fiscal year, on October 1, but declined to answer additional questions.
According to a source familiar with the discussions, Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser for policy, has been the leading advocate for fewer refugee admissions, and has attempted to sideline other key players in the discussions, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security adviser H.R. McMaster. Miller, the architect of Trump’s ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, has long argued for radically reduced immigration. Another source familiar with the refugee discussions said “there are competing voices” within the administration over what to do.
Trump has already wreaked havoc on U.S. refugee programs, signing a controversial executive order during his first week in office that temporarily halted resettlement of all refugees and sought to limit the total number of admissions to 50,000. The State Department quietly lifted that cap earlier this year, and legal challenges caused Trump’s ban to be briefly overturned by federal courts. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court, but in the meantime the Trump administration has won the right to allow refugees to enter the U.S. only if they have certain close family members — such as parents, but not grandparents — already in the country.
In his proposed budget for 2018, which is under consideration by Congress, Trump calls for slashing the budget for refugee resettlement from $544.7 million to $410 million. Overall spending on U.S. refugee programs, including ones that provide aid to refugees and displaced people overseas during humanitarian crises, would be cut by 13 percent, falling from $3.1 billion to $2.7 billion.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the current standards for screening refugees and admitting them into the country, the president has broad authority to dictate how many refugees the U.S accepts. In certain years the U.S. has admitted fewer refugees than allotted, but Trump’s proposed cap would be the lowest ever.
The White House consults annually with Congress, the State Department, and other agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council — to make the Presidential Determination, which sets a cap on the total number of refugees the U.S. will resettle in a given year.
Humanitarian groups, which have typically been consulted ahead of a final decision by the president, complain they’ve been completely shut out of the process this year. Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at the refugee resettlement agency HIAS, said in past years there was transparency and an open dialogue between the White House, the State Department, and Congress, but uncertainty is now the status quo.
“We don’t really know who is driving this train,” Nezer said. “We’re just guessing, like everyone else. That’s very unusual. In prior administrations, both Democrat and Republican, we’ve been a real partner on this.”
Nazanin Ash, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, said a cap of 50,000 refugees would be “an unprecedented, historic low at a time of tremendous global need.” Ash also expressed concern that Trump could attempt to implement some type of “values test” designed to shut out refugees from Muslim nations.
“There are some within the administration whose intention can only be described as wanting to limit the number of people coming to the U.S. through every avenue and frankly alter their demographics,” Ash said. “It’s about who’s coming.”
The lowest refugee cap on record was 67,000 in 1986 under President Reagan. After 9/11, President Bush kept the refugee limit at 70,000 but temporarily halted resettlement out of national security concerns. (Refugees already undergo extreme vetting; there have been no fatal acts of terrorism on U.S. soil linked to any of the 3 million refugees the U.S. has accepted since 1980.) The Obama administration increased the cap to 85,000 in 2016 and 110,000 for 2017, the largest yearly increases since 1990.
Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at the humanitarian organization World Relief, said a cap of 50,000 refugees would have disastrous repercussions, particularly for Iraqis who helped the U.S. military and minority Christians who face persecution in Syria and other countries, two groups that Trump has said he wants to help. A low refugee cap would exacerbate a backlog of Iraqis awaiting resettlement, Yang said, and send a signal to other countries around the world that they aren’t obligated to help refugees.
“This is not just a humanitarian program that’s saving the lives of refugees,” Yang said. “You have to understand the foreign policy piece. You can’t view this is a traditional immigration program, because it’s not. There’s a national security angle to it.”
Yang said World Relief has asked the administration to allow 75,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. Other humanitarian groups echoed that request, but Nezer said 200,000 would be “a realistic and appropriate number” based on need and U.S. capacity.
“We’re cognizant of the political environment we’re in,” she said. “Seventy-five thousand for us is the least we can do in terms of what’s going on in the world.”