WASHINGTON — President Trump signed an order Friday lowering the number of refugees allowed into the United States next year to 45,000 — the lowest cap since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980.
That’s a 59% reduction from the ceiling set by President Barack Obama just a year ago, and the largest one-year change in history. And it comes amid a global refugee crisis that international relief groups have called the worst since World War II.
Even under Trump’s numbers, the United States permanently resettles more refugees than any other country.
The lower quotas will affect refugees from every corner of the world, but will be most pronounced in the region the State Department calls the Near East and South Asia. That region accounts for 40% of refugees entering the United States, including Syria and Iraq.
In addition to refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and famine in Africa, an estimated 480,000 Rohingya refugees — more than half of whom are children — have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in just the past few weeks.
The new quota comes less than a week after Trump signed a proclamation instituting a travel ban from the nations of Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Yemen and Somalia. Those countries alone account for 30% of the refugee admissions so far this year.
Beyond those numbers, a State Department report to Congress this week outlined other changes to refugee polices that prioritize the resettlement of refugees in their country of origin, or in third countries where the refugees first flee.
The report, which hasn’t been released but was obtained by USA TODAY from congressional staffers, justifies the lower numbers as a resource issue. The Trump administration cites the need for more enhanced screening and other priorities, including political asylum claims.
At a speech at the United Nations last week, Trump insisted that the United States “is a compassionate nation and has spent billions and billions of dollars” to support refugees.
But he said the goal should be to host refugees “as close to their home countries as possible,” eventually returning them to their homes. “This is the safe, responsible, and humanitarian approach,” he said.
Refugee advocates blasted Trump’s approach as “heartless,” “unconscionable” and “shameful” — but not unexpected.
“The truth is, obviously, Trumnp signaled from the day he announced his campaign that immigrants and refugees were in his crosshairs,” said Lavinia Limon of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The 45,000 number, she said, “is better than we might have hoped for.”
The number would still make the United States the world’s top destination for refugees permanently resettling in a third country — by absolute numbers, if not by percentage of population. But advocates said it signals a retreat in U.S. leadership on humanitarian issues across the globe.
“First of all, it sends a statement to the rest of the world that we’re pulling back,” Limon said. “And when we pull back, they pull back.”
The report to Congress also puts an emphasis on the cultural assimilation and employment of refugees into the United States, a policy change that experts said was “new and extremely controversial.”
“Refugees are supposed to be selected on the grounds of their need for protection, not on the basis of what they can contribute to the U.S.,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for better management of international migration. “It certainly erodes the humanitarian values of the program and blurs the distinction between refugees and migrants.”
The Refugee Act was signed into law by President Carter in 1980 to address Russian Jews fleeing persecution and Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. That year, refugee admissions into the United States exceeded 200,000. It spiked again in the early 1990s in response to the Balkan crisis, but over the last 38 years the average ceiling has been about 96,000.
A year ago, President Obama had set the refugee ceiling for 2017 at 110,000, the highest number since 1995. But seven days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order reducing that number to 50,000.
That number was cast as a temporary measure while the Trump administration could institute “extreme vetting” procedures focused on countries it said were hotbeds of terrorism.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president must sign an annual declaration setting the refugee quota for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
That declaration is supposed to follow consultations with Congress, but congressional leaders — both Democrats and Republicans — have said they’re frustrated by the lack of input.
“An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
– Julia Fair contributed