President Donald Trump is dramatically slashing the number of refugees allowed into the United States to an all-time low, but the real number of refugees set to be admitted into the country could be far lower than the official limit, as the Trump White House has slowed down every step of the process and created a bottleneck that could last for years.
For example, 4,000 Iraqis are supposed to gain admission this year, but only 465 got in last year because their applications were delayed by heightened vetting and a lack of political will to speed up processing. Only 503 refugees from Central America were admitted last year even though the cap allowed for thousands. Beyond that, the administration has created a new system of limits for different types of refugees and has effectively stopped recruiting new refugees into the pipeline. Since resettlement usually takes years, the impact could last well beyond the Trump era.
The new policy isn’t just a bureaucratic issue — it ends the long-standing U.S. role as the worldwide leader in welcoming people fleeing violence at a time when the number of refugees is at its highest level since World War II. The moves may be popular with Trump’s anti-immigrant base, but critics warn that they endanger the lives of tens of thousands of people who are in danger in their home countries.
“He’s basically trying to eviscerate and totally destroy the program,” said Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy for the pro-migrant Immigration Hub. “Their ultimate goal is just to decrease legal immigration into the United States, including refugees.”
Barbara Strack, former chief of the refugee affairs division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, called the new cap “devastating” to the program.
“It really is just cementing the downward spiral in the refugee numbers during the Trump administration,” she said.
The State Department declined to comment regarding the Trump refugee plan. Officials last month proposed setting the cap for this year at 18,000, the lowest ceiling since Congress created the refugee program in 1980.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan are expected to defend the proposal Oct. 15 during consultations with top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary committees, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The refugee ceiling will not officially be finalized until after the consultation with lawmakers, although the administration has not changed its position in recent years.
Former President Barack Obama set a goal of admitting 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017. Trump has been cutting the level dramatically since he took office and his officials even considered setting it at zero this year.
The administration argues that refugees and asylum seekers represent a similar pool of humanitarian cases and that resources should be shared between both U.S. programs. Refugees seek protection from abroad while asylum seekers apply from the U.S. or when arriving at a border.
Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said last month that his agency had 330,000 asylum cases waiting for adjudication. The State Department cited that backlog when it announced the president’s refugee limit for the coming year, saying it “would be irresponsible” for the U.S. to seek to resettle refugees overseas while migrants continued to arrive at the border.
A USCIS spokesperson echoed that sentiment in a written statement, saying the influx of migrants at the southwest border necessitated the diversion of agency resources away from refugee processing overseas.
“USCIS continues to take action to address this crisis, such as sending officers from other parts of the agency, including refugee officers, to assist their asylum officer colleagues,” the spokesperson said.
Jessica Vaughan, a policy director with the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration, contends Trump’s 18,000-person ceiling will offer protections to those most in need around the world and ease the burden on receiving communities.
“The fact that the numbers are going to be lower is going to be less of a concern for state and local governments,” she said.
But advocates for refugees see the administration’s policies as part of an effort to crack down on all forms of immigration.
“They are intentionally destroying the ability of the United States to receive refugees for three to five years into the future,” said Jen Smyers, a policy and advocacy director with Church World Service, a resettlement agency.
For the first time this year, the Trump administration is creating a new system that sets aside the majority of slots for different kinds of refugees, which is a big reason the U.S. is unlikely to admit the maximum of 18,000 people. If one category doesn’t hit its limit, it's not clear that those slots will be transferred to another category.
The Trump administration would devote 5,000 spaces to people with a fear of religious persecution, 4,000 spaces to Iraqis who aided U.S. forces in that country and 1,500 spaces to people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to a proposal shared with lawmakers and obtained by POLITICO. Only 7,500 slots have been set aside for a general pool of refugees from around the world. Congolese and Burmese refugees — who made up more than half of the 30,000 refugees accepted last year — will compete with people of other nationalities for the limited spaces in that general pool.
The U.S. won’t likely move fast enough to reach the caps this year for certain refugees, such as Iraqis, who have had trouble getting through the refugee system under enhanced Trump-era security hurdles and vetting.
An analysis of State Department data by resettlement groups in July found more than 100,000 Iraqis are seeking to enter the U.S. as refugees. Of those, roughly 14,700 had completed a prescreening process and 2,100 had finished interviews with USCIS officers, according to a State Department report reviewed by POLITICO in July.
But even with the long line, the delays caused by the security measures make it unlikely the U.S. will admit the 4,000 allowed under this year’s cap. Complicating matters, security checks for some of those would-be refugees could expire while they wait to be resettled, Smyers said.
The U.S. admitted 9,880 Iraqi refugees in fiscal year 2016, but let in only 140 Iraqi refugees in fiscal year 2018 and 465 last year.
“Processing in general has been significantly delayed, and that’s why we’re not seeing a large number of Iraqis that are coming in through this program,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of policy and advocacy with World Relief, another resettlement group.
The slowdown in processing is happening as the Trump administration pursues policies shutting down the avenues for new refugees to get into the pipeline.
USCIS officers who interview prospective refugees overseas have seen their workload slashed in recent months — with no new trips planned through the end of the calendar year. The number of USCIS officers assigned to interview refugees — a vital step in the process — fell to 35 in July, down from 110, according to an agency official. The majority of those staffers, who were previously spread across nine countries, were reassigned to conduct interviews with domestic asylum seekers from the agency’s office in Washington, the official said.
USCIS is expected to reevaluate its refugee interview schedule once the president finalizes the fiscal year 2020 ceiling. The agency reviews refugee trips every three months during the year.
At the same time, the administration is planning to reduce the role of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which previously referred the majority of refugees to the U.S. The U.S. will no longer accept referrals from the international organization except related to the categories outlined in the new proposal. And even though the U.S. will continue to work with the United Nations to process refugees in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, UNHCR doesn’t have personnel on the ground yet who can process enough cases to reach the 1,500-person cap for those countries.
The U.S. granted refugee status last year to 311 Salvadorans, 118 Guatemalans and 74 Hondurans — just 503 people in total.
“By definition, they have no infrastructure on the ground,” one administration official said of UNHCR’s current capability. “They haven’t put people in the field yet to do these things.”
A UNHCR spokesperson said generally that resettlement “remains a vital durable solution for some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” but added that it’s “disappointing that there are more refugees in need of resettlement than there are places made available by governments.” The spokesperson declined to comment on Trump’s refugee plan specifically.
Refugee backers say they also fear that the Trump administration will limit Central American refugee admissions by setting tougher standards. Under federal law, both refugees and asylum seekers must demonstrate that they cannot return to their home countries “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Trump officials repeatedly have said that Central American families trekking to the U.S. are driven primarily by economic need and don’t have valid asylum claims. If the federal officials approach refugee claims made outside the U.S. in the same way, it could limit the number of successful applications from Central America.
“Depending on how they are processing and reviewing their claims for refugee status, I think that will determine whether or not we can reach that ceiling,” Yang said. “I think it is going to be challenging.”
The other carve-out — the 5,000 spaces for people who face persecution on religious grounds — appears more likely to be filled, but advocates contend the most vulnerable groups worldwide won’t be covered.
The slots could most easily be filled by refugees entering under what’s known as the Lautenberg Amendment. The provision, introduced in 1990 by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), created an easier standard for Jewish and Christian minorities in former Soviet states to obtain refugee status.
The program in recent years has served mostly as a vehicle for Ukrainian evangelical Christians. In fiscal year 2019, the U.S. admitted 4,451 Ukrainian refugees, the second-largest nationality behind Congo.
“That’s not the religious minority community that is most in need,” said one resettlement group staffer.
The Lautenberg program also has covered Iranian religious minorities since 2004, but few have been resettled under Trump. Iranian refugees are subject to the same new security measures facing Iraqis. Only 199 Iranian refugees were admitted overall last year.
“I think with political will a lot can be done,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, a resettlement agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “But there’s really been no indication from this administration that there’s political will to rescue and resettle refugees.”