The Cable

Aid Groups Slam Trump’s Reduced Refugee Quota

It's the lowest cap on refugees in decades.

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Drawing outcry from humanitarian and refugee aid groups, President Donald Trump’s administration formally proposed Wednesday slashing the number of refugees allowed into the United States to its lowest level in decades.

The Trump administration proposed capping the number of refugees the United States takes in at 45,000 in fiscal year 2018, senior administration officials confirmed on Wednesday. Foreign Policy reported on the upcoming refugee quota decision on Tuesday.

The breakdown: 19,000 from Africa, 17,000 from the Middle East and South Asia, 5,000 from East Asia, and 1,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean.

A top administration official cited security concerns in the decision to limit the number of refugees, amid fears terrorists or other malign actors could slip into the United States under the guise of being a refugee. Refugees undergo extensive background checks, and new directives from President Trump could compel U.S. agencies to make those checks even more stringent.

“The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern,” the official said.

But humanitarian leaders say the security argument falls flat; since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, none of the nearly 1 million resettled refugees who entered the United States ever carried out a terrorist attack.

“You can assert whatever you want to assert but the facts just simply bely this preposterous argument,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “I see this as an example of fact-free policymaking,” he added.

The new quota, fruit of an intense debate inside the administration, marks the lowest ceiling for the United States since the signing into law in 1980 of the U.S. Refugee Act, which codified permanently resettling refugees in the United States. The ceiling hovered around 70,000 to 80,000 in recent years.

Humanitarian and refugee organizations slammed the decision, which comes amid the largest surge in refugees globally in modern history. Some 65 million people worldwide are displaced by conflict or famine.  

“With historically high numbers of innocent people fleeing violence worldwide, the United States response cannot be to welcome a historically low number of refugees into our country,” said Bill O’Keefe of the Catholic Relief Services, an organization that works on resettling refugees globally.

Top Democratic lawmakers also joined the wave of criticism. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called it “devastating to tens of thousands of innocent people, and a blow to America’s standing as the premier global humanitarian leader.”

Even with the new ceiling, senior officials insisted United States remains the global leader in permanently resettling refugees. Washington remained the world’s top donor on addressing humanitarian crises, spending $7 billion on humanitarian assistance last year, including $1.3 billion to the Syrian crisis and $2.5 billion to countries battling famine.

The senior administration official also dismissed speculation the administration would in practice undercut the number of refugees allowed in, even if the ceiling was at 45,000. For several years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took in fewer refugees than its quota allowed. And top White House advisers, including Stephen Miller, argued for a much lower cap in the first place.

“I state equivocally that that’s not our goal — to slow-roll it,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We have every plan to process as many refugees as we can under this ceiling,” the official said.

Photo credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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