With just six days left, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. will reach its refugee resettlement cap of 45,000 for fiscal year 2018. As of Aug. 31, only 19,899 refugees had been admitted to the U.S.
That’s a dramatic reduction from years past, and next year’s cap has been set even lower.
For more than three decades, the U.S. has taken in more refugees than the rest of the world combined. By the State Department’s estimate, more than 3 million have settled in the country since 1975, as part of a state-sponsored program.
But the Trump administration’s announcement last Monday that it plans to limit the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. next year to just 30,000, down from an already a dramatic reduction, raises questions about America’s role in global refugee resettlement and what the change means for those fleeing violence and poverty around the world.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the new resettlement ceiling reflected the U.S.’s “commitment to protect the most vulnerable around the world while prioritizing the safety and well-being of the American people,” adding that the administration intended to continue to “responsibly vet applicants to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country.”
But experts say the decision will place added pressure on countries that are already struggling to manage large migrant flows.
How has U.S. policy evolved?
While the U.S. has led the world in refugee resettlement for more than three decades, its program was initially born out of foreign policy interests, rather than humanitarian motivation. When the U.S. resettlement program began in the 1980s, “it was really driven by Cold War concerns, and a sense of wanting to provide refuge to people fleeing regimes that the U.S. opposed,” Susan Fratzke of the Migration Policy Institute said. In the years following the fall of Saigon, the U.S. admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam and Indochina—the country welcomed 207,000 in 1980, an all-time high.
By the 1990s, the U.S. refugee program had become more humanitarian-focused, but continued to lead the rest of the world in resettlement. The program’s focus on self-sufficiency — refugees are expected to find work and support themselves as quickly as possible upon their arrival to the U.S. — is part of the reason that the American government has been able to take in more refugees than any other country over the past three decades. Other top resettlement countries with comparable systems offer more robust aid programs to refugees, according to Fratzke, and cannot necessarily afford to take in tens of thousands more.
How does the U.S. resettlement program work?
The U.S. works, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as other governmental and non-governmental agencies, to resettle refugees that have fled their home countries due to fear of violence or persecution. The cases referred to the U.S. are the most extreme — while the UNHCR estimates that 8 percent of the global refugee population are eligible to be resettled, less than 1 percent ever are. The process that refugees go through to enter the U.S. is different than that of asylum-seekers — whereas refugees have already fled their home countries and are submitted for resettlement through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, asylum-seekers go through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In 2016, just 11,729 immigrants were granted asylum by the USCIS.
Once the U.S. receives refugee cases from these agencies, the government conducts its own review of these individuals and decides whether or not to admit them. This process can take up to two years, and generally includes five background checks and three in-person interviews, with evaluations by eight different government agencies.
In reviewing these cases, the U.S. generally gives highest priority to refugees who are deemed to be in most urgent need of resettlement — these include persons facing serious security concerns in the original country from where they fled, victims of violence, as well as individuals who have faced persecution due to their political or religious activities. Other groups of refugees are given priority by the State Department due to special humanitarian concerns or interest in family reunification. Groups given special consideration for resettlement by the U.S. include those fleeing Cuba, as well as Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. in some capacity.
Should a refugee be accepted for resettlement by the State Department, their case is referred to one of nine private resettlement agencies that work with the U.S. government.
Once refugees arrive to the U.S., they receive support from these agencies and their affiliates, which provide basic needs such as food, clothing, housing and job assistance to these individuals during their first months of arrival. Under the government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, refugees receive cash assistance for up to eight months. After this point, the expectation is that they achieve economic self-sufficiency, meaning they earn enough to support a family without assistance from the government.
What’s changed under Trump?
During the last year that President Obama was in office, the refugee cap was set at 110,000 for fiscal year 2017. Arrivals declined significantly after President Trump was elected, and only 53,716 refugees were resettled in the U.S. during this period despite the higher quota, according to a database maintained by the State Department.
The president signed an executive order days after taking office that took direct aim at the resettlement program, barring Syrian refugees from entering the country indefinitely and restricting immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. While the first ban was overturned by the courts, it had a major effect on the flow of refugees entering the country during this period, and a revised order was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Trump administration has pushed for “extreme vetting” of immigrants seeking to enter the country and rejected a Department of Health and Human Services study in the fall of that year that showed refugees had a positive economic outcome on the U.S. overall.
During a public appearance last June, the president said “the U.S. will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility.” The new 30,000 cap echos that statement.
‘No one is going to be able to fill the gap’
The U.S. decision puts added pressure on countries already overwhelmed by the migrant crisis, but the drop in refugee resettlement is not just a U.S. trend. The overall global number of refugee resettlement places was down by 54 percent in 2017, with only 75,200 available spots, according to the UNHCR. The year before, the number of resettlement places made available by host countries was at 163,200, the highest in 20 years. While the UNHCR estimated that 1.2 million refugees were eligible for resettlement in 2017, the agency submitted just 102,800 cases to host countries.
“We’re disappointed to see global refugee numbers reduced, including in the United States,” says Gary Seidman, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.
Since President Trump took office in January of 2017, some 30,000 migrants have crossed the Canadian border from the U.S. with hopes that they’ll have a better shot at staying in Canada. The influx of asylum-seekers has prompted some in the Canadian government to question the country’s Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S., which for years mandated that migrants arriving on either side of the border apply for asylum in the first country they arrived.
In dealing with high numbers of asylum-seekers fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East, Europe’s share spiked to 57 percent in 2017, after taking in 9 to 13 percent of resettlement cases referred by the UNHCR in previous years, in large part due to the significant drop on the U.S. side. At the same time, a resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment, driven by the rise of far-right political parties throughout the continent, has stoked anxiety in countries such as Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel faced politically perilous backlash for her commitment to welcoming one million refugees starting in 2015.
With such a major shift in refugee policy, will other countries step up to become leaders in resettlement? It’s unlikely that any will take in refugees at the volume that America once did because no other resettlement program is quite like the one in the U.S.
Even during a year when resettlement policy shifted dramatically, UNHCR numbers indicate that the U.S. still topped the list of resettlement countries in 2017: it resettled 24,599 individuals referred by the UN agency; more than Canada at 8,912, and the UK, which took in 6,202.
“No one is going to be able to fill the gap left by the U.S.,” says Fratzke. “No country is going to come in and fill those 50,000 places.”
None of this will lessen the flow of immigrants fleeing distress in countries such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Myanmar, which is why Anthony Messina, a political science professor specializing in European migration at Trinity College, envisions the global migrant situation becoming even tighter in the coming years: “One has to sort of think of this as a container or bottle that is filling up,” he says. “Even if they fall for a couple of years, it doesn’t mean that those that aspired to get to Europe or North America have gone away.”