Report

Trump to Cut Number of Refugees in U.S. by More Than Half

A long, contentious internal debate concludes with the lowest quota in almost 40 years.

People hold up placards to protest against US President Donald Trump's executive order suspending the resettlement of refugees and banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entry into the US, during a rally near the US embassy in Tokyo on January 31, 2017.
Some 40 foreigners living in Japan participated in the rally, as a defiant US President Trump struggled to defuse a mounting backlash over his ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. / AFP / KAZUHIRO NOGI        (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold up placards to protest against US President Donald Trump's executive order suspending the resettlement of refugees and banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entry into the US, during a rally near the US embassy in Tokyo on January 31, 2017. Some 40 foreigners living in Japan participated in the rally, as a defiant US President Trump struggled to defuse a mounting backlash over his ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. / AFP / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has decided to allow the resettlement of no more than 45,000 refugees in the United States next year, according to a former and a current U.S. official, ending months of contentious debate inside the administration. That will bring the number of refugees allowed into the United States to the lowest level since establishment of the resettlement program in 1980.

The long-awaited decision comes less than a week after Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that the United States prefers to prevent refugees from leaving their region and resettling in the United States. It comes at a time when the ranks of the world’s refugees have swelled to more than 22 million, placing an enormous burden on countries from Bangladesh to Turkey.

“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region,” Trump told the gathering in remarks that were overshadowed by the president’s threat to destroy North Korea and his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal.

The final outcome amounted to a compromise between White House hardliners who wanted to slash the resettlement program deeper and moderates who wanted to preserve the program, even if at a lower level than under former President Barack Obama.

Stephen Miller, a White House advisor and key architect of the president’s immigration policies, had argued for a far smaller number, contending that the threat of terrorists and the costs necessitated such a move. But Miller has struggled to back his position up with evidence, according to officials.

The Department of Homeland Security had argued behind closed doors for a ceiling of 40,000. But Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan suggested that the U.S. could easily absorb 50,000 new refugees and that a more generous resettlement policy could provide other diplomatic benefits, including greater leverage in encouraging other countries to resettle refugees, and enhance the United States’ moral standing in the world.

The State Department proposal was backed by the office of the vice president, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. mission to the United Nations earlier this month during a meeting of deputies of relevant U.S. agencies, according to an administration official. The military argued that interpreters from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq should be generously accommodated when considering resettlement quotas, according to the official.

But the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Domestic Policy Council, which is dominated by Miller, opposed the proposal, kicking decision-making up to the administration’s principals.

Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson undercut Sullivan’s position, proposing that the number be reduced to 45,000, according to one administration official and a former U.S. official.

The news agency Axios first reported on Tillerson’s recommendation to cap refugee resettlement at 45,000. Tillerson and Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary, will present a report to Congress Wednesday detailing the request for 45,000 to Congress.

Refugee advocates sharply criticized the decision to slash admissions, arguing that the administration was overlooking the benefits refugees offer American society.

“This low number, tragically, reflects evidence-free policymaking,” Eric Schwartz, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state responsible for refugee policy who currently serves as the president of Refugees International, told Foreign Policy. “As the administration’s own analysis indicates, refugees hugely benefit our society, and they also serve both our foreign policy interests and our most cherished values.”

Early this month, the White House rejected the findings of a report by the Department of Health and Human Services that estimated refugees contributed $63 billion more than they cost over the past decade, according to the New York Times. The White House disputed that finding, telling the Times that a final assessment found that low-skilled immigrants from conflict-wracked countries cost more than they contribute to the economy.

The new plan would mark a clear retreat from the Obama administration’s approach, which opened America’s borders to 51 percent of the more than 189,000 refugees resettled around the world, according to figures compiled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Before leaving office, President Barack Obama set a ceiling of 110,000 refugees for fiscal year 2017, the highest number since 1995.

In 2016, most of those refugees came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, and Somalia, including a record number of Muslims, who accounted for 46 percent of the total, and a slightly smaller number of Christians, who accounted for 44 percent of resettled refugees.

Over the coming year, the U.S. will take in about 20,000 refugees from African conflict zones, as well as a significant number from Asia, including Burmese refugees, and some from Central America. “Few if any Syrian refugees are technically exempt, but there is likely to be huge pressure to keep them out,” said one official.

U.S. refugee resettlements pale in comparison to efforts in Europe and parts of the Middle East. Millions of of refugees and immigrants who poured into Europe over the past two years are not counted in the UNHCR statistics. And countries like Turkey, which has taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees, have faced a far greater strain than the United States.

In recent weeks, Bangladesh has taken in more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who were driven from their country by Myanmar’s military in what the U.N. has termed ethnic cleansing. They joined an existing population of some 400,000 Rohingya refugees who had previously fled repression by Burmese forces.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she expects little aid from the United States. Hasina told Reuters that she had spoken to Trump along the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and he had shown little interest in the plight of Rohingya.

“He just asked, ‘How is Bangladesh?’ I said ‘It’s doing very well, but the only problem that we have is the refugees from Myanmar,’” Hasina told Reuters. “But he didn’t make any comment about refugees.”

In his first weeks in office, Trump signaled a drastic change, announcing a travel ban on nationals from six Muslim-majority countries and placing a cap on the number of refugees of 50,000 for 2017.

On Sunday, the administration added North Korea, Chad, and Venezuela to the latest, expanded travel ban. It’s unclear just how the travel ban — which bars, for instance, entry by Syrians — will fit alongside the new refugee quota, but the policy hints at tougher entry requirements for many Muslim refugees.

The debate over refugee numbers has reignited concerns in the State Department that the agency is sidelined on key policy decisions by the Trump administration, several officials told FP, echoing complaints about an under-staffed and oft-ignored department.

“It’s very much led by figureheads and without much input from those that are on the front lines,” said one State Department official.

Lawmakers have taken notice. Earlier this month, the Senate curtailed Tillerson’s controversial efforts to overhaul the agency. One measure by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy prevented the State Department from getting rid of the assistant secretary for population, migration, and refugees, the bureau that oversees U.S. refugee policy. CNN reported in June that the administration was considering folding that bureau into the Department of Homeland Security.

FP staff writers Dan De Luce, Robbie Gramer, and Ruby Mellen contributed to this report.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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