President Donald Trump on Thursday proposed slashing the quota for the country’s refugee resettlement program by almost half, to what would be the lowest level since the modern effort to protect people fleeing persecution and violence began.
The State Department said it would propose allowing just 18,000 people to be resettled in the country for the 2020 fiscal year. The White House set a cap of 30,000 people for the last fiscal year.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement Thursday that, despite the lower figure, the United States remained “the most generous country in the world when it comes to humanitarian relief efforts.” But the Trump administration appeared to link the lower refugee ceiling with the ongoing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico, blaming the tide of refugees from Central America for the strain on the country’s immigration services.
“Our nation continues to face a security and humanitarian crisis at our southern border where hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who are not being persecuted in their home countries are using our asylum system to gain entry into the United States,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “The ongoing crisis has created an unprecedented asylum workload for USCIS and creates difficulty for legitimate asylum seekers who need protection.”
The State Department said that many of the 18,000 spaces allotted for the 2020 fiscal year would be reserved for Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military, as well as a small number of those persecuted in Central America. There are also currently more than 1 million cases backlogged in federal immigration courts, according to The New York Times, and officials said they wanted to sift through those applications before accepting any more.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle a large number of refugees,” the State Department said in a statement. “Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense.”
But critics say the figure will shut out thousands who urgently need asylum and note that it’s by far the lowest cap seen in the history of the refugee resettlement program. Trump has spent the first three years of his administration whittling down the refugee cap annually, from a high of 50,000 in 2017.
“This Administration is clearly not interested in providing protection for refugees — if they were, they wouldn’t have lowered the refugee admissions goal every chance they’ve had,” Ryan Mace, a refugee specialist at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “Sadly, this number isn’t based in fact. The fact is, the U.S. has the capacity to accept far more refugees than this. We know that we can vet them and resettle them at rates far higher than this ― because the U.S. has done it for decades. This is purely a political decision, and one that couldn’t come at a worse time.”
The International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that works on refugee issues, said the decision created “further damage to America’s leadership on protecting the most vulnerable people around the world.”
“It is an unspeakable setback for refugee mothers who wish to see their children in school, parents who wish to work and support their family, and children who deserve a chance at life that isn’t solely defined by the instability and the trauma of their childhood,” David Miliband, the president of the group, said in a statement.
Trump has made the effort to limit immigration a cornerstone of his administration, installing a series of hardliners to lead the various federal agencies overseeing refugee resettlement and asylum applications. On Thursday, the acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, reinforced those policies, saying that the agency would continue to “address the border crisis, uphold the rule of law and restore integrity to the immigration system.”