President Donald Trump has spent years dismantling the refugee system and now has dealt what could be his final blow on Wednesday when he proposed cutting the already record-low admissions cap to 15,000 for the next fiscal year. And even if he loses the election in November, it will be hard to quickly undo the damage.
Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, pledged to raise the maximum number of refugee admissions to 125,000 a year if he wins. While he could change the target number for admissions with comparative ease, Biden would face a series of challenges, including restoring a resettlement infrastructure that has faced layoffs and closures due to cuts forced by the Trump administration.
“It’s a system that has experienced death by a thousand cuts. Year after year, the infrastructure is decimated,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the president, who must first consult Congress, determines the yearly refugee cap. Trump’s proposal, which was submitted quietly before the start of the new fiscal year at midnight Wednesday night, “reflects the Administration’s continuing commitment to prioritize the safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the State Department website noted.
This is in line with Trump’s longtime animosity toward refugees, whom he has accused of being dangerous, without evidence. At a campaign rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, he said that “another massive issue for Minnesota is the election of Joe Biden’s plan to inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees.”
Refugees have become a political pawn, demonized by those in the White House, while in reality most refugees are escaping humanitarian crises and even death. Since Trump took office and severely limited the entry of refugees, hundreds of thousands of families have been kept apart, people seeking medical attention have been denied entry, and some families have been forced to make the difficult decision to leave the U.S. just to be with their families.
The number of admitted refugees has since steadily declined under the Trump administration, with 2020 marking a historic low. Trump slashed the refugee admissions cap from 110,000 ― a number set by President Barack Obama during his last year in office ― to a mere 45,000 during the 2018 fiscal year. That number was sliced again to 30,000 in the 2019 fiscal year and 18,000 in the 2020 fiscal year. The U.S. only admitted roughly 11,000 refugees in 2020 due to border closures during the first few months of the pandemic ― and even before the pandemic, the number of actual admissions has been well below the caps set under Trump.
“We’ll see the ultimate deathblow to a system that has literally saved millions of lives for more than four decades.”
Refugee agencies are concerned that if Trump is reelected, those numbers will continue to take a hit, further decimating the federal program and continuing to keep out vulnerable populations who are fleeing persecution and humanitarian crises.
“We’ll see the ultimate deathblow to a system that has literally saved millions of lives for more than four decades,” Vignarajah added.
The low number of refugees comes at a time when global displacement trends are at an all-time high. Nearly 80 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, and 26 million of them are refugees. In 2017, more than two-thirds of all refugees worldwide came from five countries ― Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Venezuela ― all of which Trump has restricted entry from through his multiple travel bans.
The current plan also proposes not admitting any refugees from Somalia, Syria and Yemen, with exceptions for “those who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion” ― essentially only allowing Christian minorities, a move that advocates say is discriminatory.
The proposal also makes exceptions for refugees from Iraq who helped the United States; and for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Cuba and Venezuela.
“For refugees who have felt the instability of years of relocating with anxiety waiting for good news, for America to essentially shut the door in their faces is exactly what we’re doing through this kind of presidential determination number,” said Vignarajah.
If Biden wins, he would not only need to deal with staffing issues, but would also need to prepare for any resistance from anti-immigrant groups who want to challenge new admissions in the courts, especially if Trump is able to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice ― all of which could hinder or delay changes set by Biden.
“There’s a lot he needs to do to get this system up and running, because the people in there now are not interested in facilitating refugee resettlement in a good way,” said Yael Schacher, the senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International.
Schacher noted there is already a pipeline of people who have been approved for resettlement but are not able to physically relocate, a situation that can be addressed fairly quickly during a Biden presidency. She also said she hopes Biden will ease restrictions on asylum-seekers and refugees alike in order streamline the immigration maze that’s currently stacked against them.
Ultimately, those who are being disproportionately affected by these binary limitations are refugees from Muslim and Black populations, said Nazanin Ash the vice president of global policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee.
Refugee agencies on the ground are ready to receive and process refugees with the support of their local politicians and communities, Ash added.
“Vulnerability hasn’t decreased. The scale of the crisis hasn’t decreased. The needs of these populations haven’t decreased,” said Ash. “Nothing about their vulnerability has changed. They have followed all the rules. They have met all of the security checks. They have been proceeding through the process and they wake up tomorrow and they’re Somali or Syrian and they’re no longer eligible for the program.”