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U.S. slashes the number of refugees it will allow into the country

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Sept. 17 a new refugee limit for the United States for fiscal year 2019. (Video: Reuters)

The United States will admit no more than 30,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday, the lowest number in decades and a steep cut from the 45,000 allowed in this year.

The new number is a small fraction of one percentage point of the almost 69 million displaced people in the world today. But Pompeo said the United States remains the most generous nation when other U.S. aid to refugees is taken into account, including funds to shelter and feed refugees in camps closer to their home countries.

Pompeo said the lower cap should not be the “sole barometer” of American humanitarian measures, but “must be considered in the context of the many other forms of protection and assistance offered by the United States.”

In raw numbers, the United States accepts more refugees than other countries . In per capita terms, however, the United States lags far behind several less populated countries such as Canada, Australia and Norway.

Pompeo said the new ceiling would be less than a third of the 110,000-refugee cap in place when President Trump came to office. After he was done reading a brief statement in the State Department’s Treaty Room, Pompeo turned and left the room, ignoring questions shouted by reporters.

The new number is the lowest level of annual refugee admissions allowed since the Refugee Act was enacted in 1980.

It does not necessarily mean that 30,000 refugees will be admitted in the 2019 fiscal year, which starts next month. In the current year, for example, fewer than 20,000 refugees had been resettled by Aug. 31, less than half the current cap. With just one month to go, it is extremely unlikely the number will change dramatically.

Pompeo said another cutback in refugees — for the third year in a row — was needed because of a backlog of 800,000 pending asylum seekers. In the past, asylum seekers and refugees have been treated as two separate categories of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Under international law, countries are obligated to admit asylum seekers, though a judge can reject their cases and deport them. Refugees have already been accepted.

“In consideration of both U.S. national security interest and the urgent need to restore integrity to our overwhelmed asylum system, the United States will focus on addressing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in the country,” Pompeo said.

New refu­gee numbers must be announced at the end of every fiscal year. But with the midterm elections less than two months away, the decision reflects the administration’s assessment that current immigration levels are perceived as still being too high.

In a letter sent to Pompeo last month, a bipartisan group of former officials and heads of humanitarian organizations had urged him to raise the cap.

In his first year in office, Trump set the cap at 50,000, before cutting it to 45,000, and now again by a third.

According to the International Rescue Committee, the number of refu­gee admissions is down dramatically for Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and Rohingya. At the end of last month, just 60 refugees from Syria had been allowed into the United States this year despite an ongoing war that has displaced millions of citizens and caused a refu­gee crisis in neighboring countries.

Criticism of the decision came swiftly from many quarters.

“Reducing the refugee number to another all-time low signals to the world that we are abdicating our moral leadership, which undermines our foreign policy and national security interests,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies. “Congress should exercise its oversight responsibility and push back hard on this low number through every tool at its disposal.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) urged the administration to reverse course.

“There are a host of agencies and communities ready to welcome refugees fleeing war, ethnic cleansing, and famine,” he said in a statement. “By setting next year’s refugee cap at another historic low, the Trump administration continues to show contempt for those most in need. It is unconscionable they would justify a lower cap by pitting refugees against asylum seekers.”