The Trump administration has set the cap on the number of refugees admitted to the United States next year at 18,000, the lowest level since the program began four decades ago, officials said Thursday.

The new limit represents a 40 percent drop from the 2019 cap and marks the third consecutive year that the administration has slashed the program since the United States admitted nearly 85,000 refugees in President Barack Obama’s final year in office.

In addition, the Trump administration announced an executive order aimed at allowing local jurisdictions more leeway in rejecting refugees who are being resettled across the country, although experts said such powers are less relevant at a time when the number of refugees being admitted has dwindled sharply.

Details of the refugee plan come as the Trump administration also has pursued a wide-ranging ban on asylum seekers from Central America, in response to a surge of families that strained federal resources and created a humanitarian crisis at the southern border in the spring.

Taken together, the actions represent an assault on legal immigration programs that have long defined U.S. policy toward vulnerable and targeted groups of foreigners seeking protection from political persecution, violence or other conflicts, pro-immigration groups said.

“America was once a beacon of hope to those suffering under oppression,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Refugees fleeing violence and persecution come to the United States in search of a better life. They should be welcomed with compassion and understanding, not turned away or have their children taken from them at the border. We’re better than that. Sadly, the administration’s low refugee number says otherwise.”

Under the plan for fiscal 2020, which begins Oct. 1, the administration would allocate 5,000 refugee slots to people fleeing for religious reasons, 4,000 for Iraqis who assisted the United States and fall under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007, and 1,500 for nationals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to senior administration officials. Another 7,500 slots would go to refugees not covered by these categories, including those referred to the program by U.S. embassies.

Last year’s cap of 30,000 divided slots by region, including 11,000 refugees from Africa, the largest group, administration officials said. Latin America and the Caribbean had 3,000 slots last year.

The American Civil Liberties Union said a “large majority” of refugees admitted in 2016 were people of color and almost half were Muslim, groups that the Trump administration’s policies have increasingly barred from seeking refuge in the United States. Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, called the latest cap “sickening.”

In a background briefing for reporters, the officials emphasized that the United States remains among the world’s most generous countries in accepting refugees. They cited the need to divert resources to handle a huge backlog of asylum cases as a factor in their decision to reduce the refu­gee cap.

Asylum seekers are those seeking legal protections from another country whose cases have yet to be adjudicated, while refugees have met requirements for protection under international law.

In a statement, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, echoed the administration’s contention that migrants who are seeking to abuse the asylum system to gain entry to the country have created “an unprecedented asylum workload” on his agency.

Federal authorities have taken into custody more than 800,000 people at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past 11 months, already the highest single-year total in a dozen years. Cuccinelli said the proposed refugee cap “takes into account our existing and anticipated humanitarian workload on all fronts and fulfills our primary duty to protect and serve U.S. citizens.”Although the United States had long been the leading nation for admitting and resettling refugees — surpassing all other countries combined until 2017 — it has fallen below Canada, which last year admitted 28,000 refugees, compared with 22,000 for the United States, according to a report by the United Nations.

Officials say there is an existing backlog of approximately 1 million asylum claims before USCIS and the Justice Department’s immigration courts.

Like previous administrations, the Trump administration has frustrated both parties in Congress for failing to sufficiently consult with key lawmakers before setting the refugee cap. It is legally required to do so in person with the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees before Sept. 30 every year, though Congress has little legal recourse to compel changes to the executive branch’s plans.

A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said no such consultation had happened. Graham and Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan last week, saying “there has been very limited communication to coordinate consultation.”

Administration officials described President Trump’s executive order as a way to allow state and local governments to refuse to resettle refugees, a decision typically made by the federal government together with nonprofit resettlement agencies.

While many cities and towns have warmly welcomed refugees, bitter disputes have erupted in other communities when politicians and others complained that resettlement has burdened taxpayers with increased enrollment in schools and health-care costs. Others have claimed the disputes stemmed more from racism and xenophobia, and said cities and towns should welcome refugees fleeing brutal wars, dictatorships or violence.

Among the refugees resettled in the United States are families fleeing conflicts in Congo, Syria and other countries. All have been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies and some have waited for years to settle in the United States.

Trump gave the State and Health and Human Services departments 90 days to create a process by which state and local governments can welcome refugees, in writing, and the State Department will publish those agreements. But the impact of Trump’s order is limited, officials said in a media briefing held Thursday on the condition of anonymity. Refugees would be able to travel anywhere in the United States once they are legally admitted to the country, including to cities and towns that publicly refuse to resettle them as a first stop in the United States.

States that have resettled the most refugees this year are Texas, New York, Washington and California, which account for roughly a quarter of those resettled in fiscal 2019,according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

“This is a very sad day for America,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “This decision represents further damage to America’s leadership on protecting the most vulnerable people around the world.”