The United States plans to accept a maximum of 45,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year, according to a report obtained by The Washington Post, a figure that represents the lowest cap in decades and one that human rights groups quickly condemned.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security briefed members of Congress on the plan Wednesday. The cap, previously reported by the Wall Street Journal and others, is the lowest since a 1980 law created an organized refugee program.
“It’s a devastating blow to the U.S. refugee admissions program and this country’s sense of self and history of compassion in welcoming refugees,” said Naureen Shah, campaign director for the U.S. arm of Amnesty International, which had recommended a ceiling of 75,000. “It feels like a sharp betrayal, pouring gas on the fire that is engulfing the world. We see all over the world, ordinary people are being treated worse than cattle. For the Trump administration to become an accomplice to that is heartbreaking.”
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said authorities had “every plan to process as many refugees as we can under this ceiling.” A White House official said: “The president’s strategy on refugees is guided first and foremost by the safety and security of the American people. The United States can also help a larger number of refugees by resettling them in their home region and enabling their eventual safe return home.”
The cap is for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2018. It calls for the United States to accept 19,000 people from Africa; 5,000 from East Asia; 2,000 from Europe and Central Asia; 1,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean; and 17,500 from the Near East and South Asia.
To the alarm of some advocates, the report said that when making decisions on whether to admit refugees, U.S. officials would “take into account certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution to the United States.”
“I find that really troubling,” said Melanie Nezer, an official with HIAS, one of the nine agencies working with the government to acclimate and resettle refugees.
Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch, said that criteria was “completely irrelevant.”
“Refugees are often traumatized and would not at first glance appear to be good candidates for immigration because they were selected not based on their immigration criteria, but on refugee needs,” Frelick said. “And yet many of them have proven resilient over time and become very productive members of society.”
A State Department official said: “This is not an additional requirement. Instead, it is an area of discussion that State and [the Department of Homeland Security] are exploring this coming year.”
While the cap is low — it represents far less than 1 percent of the 22.5 million people counted as refugees — it does not necessarily reflect the actual number of refugees who are admitted to the United States in a year.
That figure fell below 45,000 during several years after the terrorist attacks in 2001. In 2002, refugee admissions plunged to 27,000 from 70,000, and to 28,000 the next year.
But since the law that let the president establish the cap, the ceiling has never gone below 67,000, set by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. The annual ceiling has fluctuated between 70,000 and 80,000 in recent years, until growing to 110,000 under President Barack Obama. Trump cut it to 50,000 midway through the current fiscal year.
A U.S. official said the administration believed this year it could “get into the ballpark of this ceiling.”
The report said that in establishing the cap, the administration took into account prospective refugees who had been interviewed but had not yet arrived in the United States, historical data, and an analysis of the government’s staffing needs and screening abilities. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, though, said they felt the administration had not sufficiently engaged with legislators before settling on a figure.
“Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) said in a statement. “An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient.”
The report said that the refugee population has been increasing, and the United States, in particular, has been wrestling with more people who make their way to the country and seek asylum once they are here. The report said officials expect to have a backlog of more than 300,000 such cases early in fiscal 2018.
The report touts the United States’ expansive role in resettling refugees, noting that it is the single largest donor to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, providing more than $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2016. The UNHCR referred more than 90 percent of refugees for resettlement to the United States, Australia and Canada in 2016, according to the report.
Even at the reduced ceiling of 45,000, the United States will resettle the most refugees in raw numbers. But other nations, such as Canada, take in far more in proportion to their populations.
While the cap goes into effect Oct. 1, President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees, inked in March, remains in effect until Oct. 24. That would keep out refugees without a bona fide connection to the United States.
While the administration recently unveiled a new entry ban affecting, in various ways, citizens of eight countries, the directive did not address what would happen with refugees. The refugee report references the new executive order, noting the administration's desire to improve screening and vetting procedures when it comes to refugees.
It is unclear if the administration will impose any restrictions on top of the cap after Oct. 24. A U.S. official said the administration was still reviewing current vetting and screening procedures, which are already robust.
This story has been updated to note that the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is now called HIAS.