Although the federal courts blocked President Donald Trump from formally lowering the cap on refugee admissions to 50,000, he largely achieved the goal in practice, statistics released Thursday show.
According to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the United States resettled 53,716 refugees in the fiscal year that ended September 30. That is a 36.8 percent reduction from fiscal year 2016 and the lowest number since 2007.
The Trump administration has established a cap of 45,000 for the current fiscal year. That is the lowest number since the program was created in 1980 and a dramatic departure from a ramp-up former President Barack Obama ordered as part of a campaign to take in more refugees from the six-year-old Syrian civil war.
Obama had set the fiscal year 2017 refugee cap at 110,000. Trump ordered that reduced to 50,000 as part of an executive order temporarily blocking travelers from seven — and then six in a revised order — terrorism-compromised countries. But the courts blocked the entire executive order.
Even with uncertainty over the official number, however, refugee resettlements in the United States plummeted each month Trump has been in office until an uptick last month. Relocations dropped from 6,777 in January to just 913 in August, before rebounding 324 last month. The country resettled more people during the first four months — when Obama was still president — than it did in the final eight.
[lz_table title=”Refugee Resettlements Decline” source=”Refugee Processing Center”]Fiscal Year,Refugee Admissions
“Most of them came before [Trump took office], and then a little bit came after that,” said Nayla Rush, a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Refugees from Syria particularly tanked, falling from 12,587 in fiscal year 2016 to 6,557 in fiscal year 2017. After peaking at 1,318 in January, the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States dropped every single month through the end of the year, with 48 coming in each of August and September.
The refugee program was part of Trump’s sweeping travel ban order. The president originally wanted to freeze the entire program for 120 days in order to review vetting procedures, and cap the total number at 50,000. Despite litigation that prevented Trump from formally implementing those policies, the final number ended up close to the 50,000 limit the president envisioned.
Ilya Somin, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, told reporters on a conference call that the admission of refugees is a complex, bureaucratic process.
“It’s possible that the administration was able, in effect, to surreptitiously lower the number of refugees who get in even though they weren’t able to accomplish very much with the second travel ban order,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not actually unusual for the number of refugees admitted in a given year to be lower than the target set by whatever administration is in power.”
“I still don’t see what came out of it. What did they learn? What are they going to change?”
Rush said the Department of Homeland Security should know how many refugees it can safely scrutinize and resettle. She said cutting the number of refugees should improve security, but she added there never are guarantees.
“You never know,” she said. “You could bring in 10,000, and one could be a terrorist … Or, someone could be radicalized after they get here.”
But she questioned what came out of the Trump administration’s review of the refugee review other than a reduction in the numbers. The point of the moratorium included in the travel pause was to develop better procedures, she said.
“I always think it’s beyond numbers … If you’re reviewing the program, it’s not just about vetting,” she said. “I still don’t see what came out of it. What did they learn? What are they going to change?”
According to a State Department official, the United States is taking additional steps to intensify the screening process for refugees. The official said the review ordered by Trump is still underway but added that the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies already have taken concrete steps.
Pro-refugee groups bitterly oppose efforts to roll back admissions. Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, last week called the cap adjustment “a devastating betrayal of an American tradition of helping people escape war and horrific violence.”
Huang accused Trump of bigotry and hate.
“President Trump’s heartless decision puts thousands of people’s lives at risk of certain death. Refugees are ordinary people who have lost everything,” she said in a statement. “They deserve our compassion and concern as they rebuild their lives.”
Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, noted that the Department of Homeland Security had recommended a refugee cap in fiscal year 2018 of 40,000 because of a backlog in asylum applications. He also pointed out that the number of refugees is driven in large part by how much money Congress appropriates.
“I, obviously, think there’s going to be court challenges for setting the number at 45,000,” he said. “But if Congress appropriates money for only 45,000 … I don’t see those challenges going anywhere.”
Chmielenski said a top-down review of the private agencies paid to resettle the refugees also is in order.
“The refugee resettlement — I’d be willing to call it the refugee resettlement industry — has been on autopilot for a decade or more,” he said.