The United States was once a leader on refugee policy. That is, until Donald Trump entered office.
In early October, the Trump administration decided to lower the refugee cap to a new historic low for the 2021 fiscal year. This decision, made in the closing month of the president’s re-election campaign, represents the lowest cap since the creation of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program in 1980 under President Carter.
President Trump has lowered the refugee admittance cap every year that he has held office. For the fiscal year of 2018, the annual refugee cap was set to 45,000, cut by approximately sixty percent after President Barack Obama set an admittance cap of 110,000 in 2016 during his final year in office. Now, for fiscal 2021, the limit has been set to 15,000, down from 18,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, which was also a record low. These proposed limits on refugee resettlement quotas will drastically reduce opportunities for people fleeing war, violence, and persecution throughout the world.
By law, the White House is required to meet with Congress before making its decision about the refugee admittance cap each fiscal year. Despite pressure from Congress, the Trump administration failed to arrange such a consultation. Instead, the White House informed Congress of the 2021 cap just 34 minutes before the statutory deadline, leaving lawmakers largely powerless to enact changes.
In late September, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) took to Twitter to criticize the administration’s failure to meet with Congress to discuss refugee admissions:
“Today is the end of the fiscal year, and still no meeting. In the midst of the worst refugee crisis in history, the Trump Admin is so determined to turn away innocent survivors of war and terrorism that they are illegally refusing to consult with Congress about refugee admissions,” he tweeted.
The 15,000 admittance cap is only the latest move in President Trump’s long standing goal of closing the U.S. to immigrants, refugees, and asylees. Other efforts during his term include suspending travel from Muslim-majority countries through Executive Order 13769, granting local authorities veto power over refugee resettlement, and attempting to rescind DACA protections for ‘Dreamers’.
The administration argues that these drastic efforts are a necessary response to the increase in illegal immigration from the U.S.-Mexico border. However, Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary of Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, dismissed the president’s claim that refugee resettlement presents a national security threat:
“Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted populations that are admitted to the United States,” Neumann said in a press call with the National Immigration Forum. “This administration’s approach is not based on security, but on a larger effort to keep out the stranger.”
Under Trump, many resettlement organizations that contract with the State Department for resettlement services are struggling to stay open or have already closed. Reports from Refugee Council USA indicate that 51 programs have shut down under Trump and 41 offices have temporarily closed or scaled back operations. Many of these resettlement programs worked to reunite refugees with their families in the U.S., so Trump’s decision will only add onto the trauma suffered by divided families.
The White House’s decision comes at a time when humanitarian crises are rampant and the number of refugees is skyrocketing. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 80 million people around the world are displaced. Among them are 26 million refugees, half of whom are children.
With large-scale displacement also comes statelessness. UNHCR estimates that there are millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and subsequently basic human rights such as healthcare, education, and employment. For example, the Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state who are stateless due to current discriminatory citizenship laws. More than 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes and resettle in Bangladesh, a majority being women and children.
Refugee crises are also occurring in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, and more. This dire situation is compounded by COVID-19, as refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence find themselves trapped by harsh migration policies and increasing border closures.
This new policy ends the U.S.’ long-standing role as the world leader on refugee policy and endangers the lives of tens of thousands of people fleeing violence and persecution. The Trump administration is also planning to scale back its partnership with the UNHCR, which previously referred the majority of its refugees to the U.S.
The White House’s record-setting refugee cap is an attack on refugees, asylum seekers, and legal immigration. In addition to the cap restriction, the president also proposed to Congress that the U.S. should not admit refugees from Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, citing security concerns within the region. In doing so, Trump is attempting to cut the U.S. off from three major humanitarian crises, turning the country’s back on people fleeing violence at a time when the number of refugees is at its highest since World War II.
What does this mean for the future of refugees and asylum seekers? Will other countries follow suit in abandoning refugee resettlement efforts or fill in the gaps left by the U.S.?
Only time will tell.