As of May 2018, there were 25.4 million refugees living outside of their homes, desperately seeking safety from their war-torn nations. This unprecedented number surpasses the entire population of New York State and is five times greater than the population of Ireland. Out of the millions of refugees currently awaiting resettlement, less than 0.5% were actually resettled in the past year. Yet, at a time when so many are desperately seeking refuge, the Trump administration recently announced its plan to reduce the refugee admissions cap in the United States to a historical all-time low.
The term “refugee” was first defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention which also established the first internationally recognized laws related to refugee admissions. Years later, The United States joined this global commitment to protect refugees when it signed the United Nations 1967 Protocol. Congress eventually incorporated the international treaty into U.S. law with the Refugee Act of 1980 (the Act), providing the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Under U.S. law, the President, in consultation with Congress, sets a ceiling for refugee admissions each year. According to the Act, “the number of refugees who may be admitted … may not exceed fifty thousand.” However, the Act allows for an excess of the cap should the President deem it to be justified “by humanitarian concerns” or “national interest.” Although the refugee cap has fluctuated over time, since 1975, the United States has resettled over three million refugees, admitting 207,000 in 1980 alone.
Until recently, the lowest annual refugee admission was 27,110 and occurred the year after 9/11. However in 2018, the President’s senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, and U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, advocated to decrease the cap to 25,000 refugees, the lowest in our country’s history. The program’s fate rests largely in the hands of Mr. Miller, a strong anti-immigration advocate who recently gained allies due to abrupt staffing changes in the White House. In the past eighteen months, two of the three cabinet secretaries who pushed back on lowering immigration admissions—Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State, and Elaine Duke, former Secretary of Homeland Security—were replaced by officials with similar political ideologies to Mr. Miller. Furthermore, officials at the National Security Council who previously opposed Mr. Miller’s efforts to slash refugee numbers, have also left or been forced out. In their place, two men close to Mr. Miller and who are also in favor of drastically cutting U.S. refugee numbers have been named to senior positions within the State Department: Andrew Veprek, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Refugees and Migration, and John Zadrozny, a policy planning staff member.
The administration’s explanation for the abrupt shift in U.S. immigration policy has varied, with many officials citing national security concerns as a reason for the drastic cut in refugee numbers. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that Mr. Trump “wants to make sure whoever comes into the country, we know who they are, why they’re coming, and that they pose no danger or threat to Americans.” Secretary Pompeo further stated that the reduced refugee cap “reflects our commitment to protect the most vulnerable around the world while prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of the American people.”
In response to the Trump administration’s claims, there have been numerous cries of outrage around the international humanitarian community. Amnesty International, an NGO with the third-longest history in the field of international human rights, contended that the administration’s announcement “demonstrates another undeniable political attack against people who have been forced to flee their homes,” and that “[t]here is absolutely no excuse for not accepting more refugees in the coming year.” The International Rescue Committee further echoed their concerns, urging that, “The United States is not only abdicating humanitarian leadership and responsibility-sharing in response to the worst global displacement and refugee crisis since World War II, but compromising critical strategic interests and reneging on commitments to allies and vulnerable populations.”
Despite the international community’s objections, the administration defends that the United States is still the “most generous nation in the world when it comes to protection-based immigration.” Regardless of the outlook, one aspect of the new refugee policy is clear: at a time when 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, the U.S. has chosen to divert its international commitments and reduce the admissions cap from 50,000 to its lowest point in the program’s almost forty-year history. The policy shift will undoubtedly have a ripple effect across the globe—refugees who might have formally resettled in the United States must now seek refuge in a new nation or risk living in limbo for the remainder of their lifetime.