On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would reduce its refugee cap for the 2019 fiscal year. Over the 12-month period beginning Oct. 1, the United States will accept no more than 30,000 refugees, down from 45,000 this year. That, too, was down dramatically; the administration of President Barack Obama set a cap of 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year, only part of which saw Obama as president.

Those caps are upper limits, not goals that are met. So far this fiscal year, the country has admitted fewer than 21,000 refugees, less than half the cap.

How low is that? Data from the State Department makes it obvious. It’s the lowest figure since 1977, covering a fiscal year that ends in 12 days.

Over time, the nature of the refugee population has evolved. In the early 1980s, there was a surge in refugees from Asia — specifically from Southeast Asia. After the Vietnam War, many former South Vietnamese citizens sought to come to the United States. The passage of the Refugee Act in 1980 facilitated that exodus. It set an annual cap of 50,000 refugees, allowing for changes in times of emergency.


Ten years later, many of those seeking refuge in the United States were residents of the collapsing (and then collapsed) Soviet Union. In 1999, there was a surge of refugees from Kosovo, fleeing violence in the Balkans.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, refugee admissions to the United States dropped. Once the United States responded to those attacks by launching a war in Afghanistan and invading Iraq, the number of refugees from the Middle East increased dramatically. That escalated once the Syrian civil war began, and as a power vacuum in Iraq helped facilitate the emergence of the Islamic State, Middle Eastern refugees spiked.

That’s obvious from the United Nations' annual figures showing the number of refugees receiving assistance from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. (Pre-2013 data here; post- here.)

Most of those refugees end up near their countries of origin. A chart showing 2017 refugee movement makes that clear.

The Trump administration’s rationale is that limiting the number of refugees entering the country is an important component of public safety.

A report from the libertarian Cato Institute released in 2016 indicated that the risk to an American of being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack in any given year was 1 in 3.64 billion.