The 2020 Presidential Determination (PD) setting the annual number of refugee admissions at 18,000 is one of the administration’s most consequential decisions on immigration to date. Over the course of the Trump administration, the refugee ceiling has dropped precipitously from 110,000, despite a growing humanitarian and national security need.  

News of this year’s record low ceiling and accompanying executive order camouflaged a series of 10 changes analyzed below that will make resettling even 18,000 refugees a near impossibility. 

1. Requiring Resettlement Consent By State and County

For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government is allowing states to opt-out—or opt-in, depending on the language of the regulation slated for release in July 2020—of the refugee resettlement program. In the governing Executive Order, the White House asserts that state and local governments are in the best position to identify the ideal environments for refugees, to identify the communities that cannot accommodate refugees, and to know about their own resources and capacities. Therefore, it stands to reason, that some form of consent on the state and local basis should be required to resettle refugees. But this justification belies the actualities of refugee resettlement: the federal government is already required to consult with the states prior to resettlement.

The federal government has a legal responsibility to ensure that refugees vetted for entrance into the United States have a safe place to call home; the President of the United States authorized the resettlement of 18,000 refugees, so even stalwart anti-refugee state leaders should abide by the President’s decision to resettle the number of refugees he determined appropriate and consent to his determination.

Practically speaking, the outcome of any state’s refusal to resettle refugees is that those with social, familial, and economic ties in certain opt-out states must rely not on family and friends for services and goods, but on the resources provided in nearby opt-in states for initial resettlement. Nonetheless, when states voice concerns about refugee resettlement, the federal government should pay attention.

Rather than try to constrain the resettlement options of the federal government, the ideal outcome is to prioritize locations for resettlement that are seeking to attract and accommodate refugees. Enhancing cooperation and coordination between the federal government and the state and local governments that resettle refugees should move in both directions. If a locality claims it cannot support resettlement, then jurisdictions should be able to claim they can support increased resettlement and have the opportunity and funding to scale-up infrastructure.

2. Limiting the Definition of “Refugee”

Under Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a refugee is an alien who has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Individuals who meet the statutory definition may be considered for either refugee status if they are applying for protection outside the United States, or asylum status if they are inside the United States or present themselves at the U.S. border. 

All United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) referrals to a U.S. embassy are made pursuant to the entirety of the definition of “refugee” in the INA. According to the new PD, however, U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) may no longer accept referrals from UNHCR except in the categories listed in this year’s PD allocation, where a refugee is redefined as those: “who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion.

Generally, USRAP allocates admissions among refugees of special humanitarian concern as “priorities” in accordance with the PD. Priority 1 cases are usually individual cases referred by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need; Priority 2 cases are reserved for groups of people designated by the Department of State as being of special concern; and Priority 3 cases are for individuals looking to reunify with family members already in the United States. Through its “only religion” limitation, the Trump administration has potentially excluded the vast majority of priority designees, as well as individuals who were previously protected after undergoing forced abortion or sterilization. 

Although a U.S. embassy has always been able to reject referrals from UNHCR, the PD is non-specific about who is responsible for identifying refugees in the new “religious only” category. Theoretically, UNHCR referrals can continue, but the bulk could potentially be refused by the embassy, depending on the rules the Department of State will eventually chart.  

This change openly conflates priority processing with the refugee definition determination by truncating the refugee definition to exclude grounds of protection for persecution on account of race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, and political opinion, and undermining priority designations. There is no efficient way to “filter” for those who have been persecuted religiously. Most refugees are accepted in the U.S. based on their political beliefs—like the Vietnamese or Cubans—or have multiple grounds for protection that intersect, like the Bhutanese, Royhingya, or Chin. The administration is potentially limiting the scope of the law without Congressional action, and thereby limiting the five protected grounds to just one. 

Without UNHCR referrals, the U.S. will have to devise its own systems to identify cases abroad ripe for resettlement—a capacity that does not yet exist in most locations—thereby incurring unnecessary expenses and forgoing decades of experience and infrastructure. Additionally, the U.S. is squandering the valuable data and records that UNHCR has amassed on millions of refugees, like critical biodata and biometrics that normally enhance security for the US in resettlement. Without engagement with UNHCR, this data is irreplaceable; the U.S. cannot replicate registration information from 5, 10, or 15 years ago that is regularly updated by UNHCR. 

Finally, when UNHCR makes a referral, the refugee claim is written up by an experienced UNHCR officer in great detail and shared with governments—usually long in advance of any resettlement processing. Along with the biometrics and biodata, this critical information for the US to ensure integrity in adjudicating the cases, and running security checks. 

For example, the refugee history given to UNHCR can be compared to that given to the DHS officer, and consistencies or discrepancies in UNHCR and U.S. information are vital to arriving at a correct decision on U.S. refugee status and on security clearances. By divorcing itself from UNHCR, the U.S. is potentially jettisoning all this—making the U.S. program less secure and the refugee decisions less informed. Moreover, the U.S. loses the ability to know information like whether an individual is already under consideration by another resettlement country. 

Ending UNHCR referrals—even in practice—will gut future pipelines; without a viable embassy-driven feeder system, the U.S. resettlement pipeline will likely incur lasting negative impacts for years to come without UNHCR.

3. Abolishing Regional Allotments

Since the start of the refugee program, the annual PD has included regional allotments that together make up the total of the refugee admission ceiling. Regional allotment is one tool that ensures that the United States is effectively targeting certain geographical areas that are in need of more or less aid. 

In FY 2018, the administration failed to resettle anywhere near the 45,000 cap; failing to hit regional targets in every category, and resettling just 22,000 refugees. 

Last year, the United States did resettle the goal of 30,000 refugees in the final week of the fiscal year. While the overall cap was met, the discrepancies from individual regions was disquieting. For example, the regional cap for European refugees was 3,000, but the United States ended up resettling almost 5,000 European refugees—167 percent of the regional ceiling—but woefully failed to resettle individuals from Latin America/Caribbean and Near East/South Asia. 

FY 2019 Regional Allotment Resettlement

RegionRegional CeilingAdmissionsPercent (%) Filled
East Asia4,0005,030126%
Latin America/Caribbean3,00080927%
Near East/South Asia9,0002,80131%

The regional resettlement caps have been eliminated in exchange for four new “populations of special humanitarian concern.” Within the 18,000 ceiling are four new designations:

  • 7,500 for refugees referred by a U.S. embassy or who are being reunited with family 
  • 5,000 for refugees fleeing religious persecution
  • 4,000 for Iraqis that worked for the U.S. military
  • 1,500 for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras 

These changes seem relatively harmless—a mere altering of the composition of refugees—but there is the potential for a tremendous level of change packed into these new categories. For example, in the last four years, the U.S. has resettled, on average, fewer than 800 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras combined. 

Although a higher ceiling reflects a growing need for resettlement from Northern Triangle countries, they lack the infrastructure to actually process this many refugees, making it a meaningless edict. The same is true of the increased cap for Iraqis. In FY 2019, the U.S. resettled just 465 Iraqi refugees; down from nearly 10,000 in FY 2016. 

Eliminating the regional allotments will also have a significant impact on the population of refugees arriving from Africa. In FY19, more than half of all refugees came from African nations; nearly 13,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 5,000 from Myanmar. But the new foci of resettlement will likely underutilize the resettlement infrastructure that exists in those parts of Africa in pursuit of refugees in other regions—and now, only those suffering from religious persecution—thus abandoning robust African resettlement in the future. 

Perhaps most disturbing is the elimination of both countries—DRC and Myanmar—from accessing Priority 2 categories in 2020. Also removed from Priority 2 categorization are ethnic minorities and refugees from Myanmar and the Congolese in Rwanda and Tanzania. Without P2 distinction, it is uncertain whether the 26,000 Congolese and 6,200 Myanmar refugees currently being processed for resettlement will come to America.

4. Continuing to Reverse and Defund Protections Abroad

The administration has reversed protections for hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and abroad—namely those from Northern Triangle Countries (NTCs)—while continuing to assert the need for more robust resettlement efforts, creating bizarrely paradoxical policies.

In keeping with the findings of the administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, financial aid would address the root causes of many of the problems—known colloquially as “push factors”— that leads nationals of NTCs to seek asylum status in the U.S. rather than internally relocate. In fact, the Security Strategy identified localized humanitarian aid as having more potential for enabling displaced individuals to “voluntarily return home” than resettlement; repatriation via in-country financial aid (not resettlement) being the ultimate goal of this administration. 

Prioritizing aid over resettlement is not unheard of. In fact, the Obama administration created the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America in order to combat the violence and displacement happening in that region. Of course, that strategy was supplemented by refugee resettlement; it did not supplant it. 

While the tradeoff can be a good idea in principle, the aid promised by the Trump administration has not yet materialized. 

To the contrary, the administration has attempted to end aid to countries with rising numbers of displaced people, which runs counter to its stated goal of protecting displaced persons in or near their countries of origin. In June 2019, the Trump administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Congressional aides reported that the administration stated it would reallocate $370 million in FY 2018 spending lawmakers had approved for Central America and suspend an additional $180 million approved for FY 2017. 

The administration can’t have it both ways: arguing that in-country aid is more productive than resettlement but then drying up aid programs. 

5. Contriving Competition Between Refugees and Asylees 

Publicly, the administration has made multiple, spurious statements that attempt to justify lower refugee resettlement numbers in light of the increasing demand for asylum at our southern border, but there is little accuracy in the contrived relationship between the two programs. In the PRM report to Congress, the administration openly conflates asylum flows with refugee resettlement writing, “The United States anticipates receiving more than 368,000 new refugees and asylum claims in FY 2020.” The administration argues the admissions ceiling reflects “the urgent need to address border security and humanitarian crisis caused by the massive surge of aliens seeking protection at the southern border” and “the backlog of nearly one million asylum seekers” awaiting adjudication. 

Throughout history and without exception under any previous administration, the United States has processed refugees for resettlement and evaluated asylum claims. Barbara Strack, who previously led refugee resettlement at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called this reasoning a smokescreen saying, “[T]he government can handle both. There are approximately 40,000 refugees overseas already approved by DHS, who are subject to rigorous security checks and health screenings before they can travel to the U.S. These 40,000 “pipeline” cases could still travel to the U.S. over the next 12 months.”

Republicans and Democrats on the Hill agree. In August, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that while they shared concern about the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, “we disagree that eliminating refugee admittance would somehow alleviate the flow of individuals without proper documentation crossing between ports of entry.”

Refugees and asylees enter the United States in very different ways and utilize very different processes; they are not programs (or resources) in competition with one another. 

6. Deconstructing Resettlement Infrastructure

For more than a year, rumors have been circulating that the administration would move to reduce the number of voluntary agencies (“Volags”) that administer resettlement programs for the U.S. As the refugee cap has dropped significantly, many of the current nine agencies have faced cutbacks, office closures, and personnel reductions. The official termination of some number of voluntary agencies will only cement the long-term evisceration of an American system created to resettle robust refugee flows annually. As a result of the declining admissions under the Trump administration, all nine resettlement agencies have had to close offices or pause their placement programs—chipping away at a system designed to not only place refugees but also help them integrate into communities across the country. 

Matthew Soerens of World Relief (a Volag) writes that his organization:

“[H]as closed seven offices and adapted several others to continue serving vulnerable refugees and other immigrants, but without resettling any newly arrived refugees. Financial support from churches and individual donors has increased, but we have still had to make difficult changes—and might need to adapt further. With each office we close, we lay off talented staff and lose personal relationships with dozens of local church partners. Office space is turned over to landlords.”

Press reports from across the country show the cratering resettlement system closing its doors. In fact, Refugee Council USA has reported more than 100 offices have closed nationwide halfway through FY19; the announcement of a PD of 18,000 will supercharge the reduction in space, staff, and resources. 

One strategy to maintain the infrastructure is tapping into private sector interest in supporting refugees that exists across the United States and launching community sponsorship programs that complement current efforts from the voluntary agencies and ensure their survival. Programs across the country, like those in Connecticut and Arkansas, have used the community sponsorship model with great results. 

7. Obfuscating Sustainability of Refugee Resettlement

Dating back to his campaign, the Trump administration has claimed that refugees and asylum seekers are a burden on the U.S. economy. This is simply false. 

According to recent data inadvertently released by the government, a report by the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that during the 10 years between 2005 and 2014, refugees and asylees here from 1980 contributed more than $63 billion more to government revenue than they used in public services. The per capita annual net fiscal effect of each refugee or asylee was positive $2,205 compared to the national average of $1,848 from 2005 to 2014. 

Even at the outset of arrival, state expenses are almost entirely covered by the federal government. Once a refugee is deemed admissible and is screened, the federal government works with state refugee resettlement organizations to resettle refugees. There are three main approaches to providing refugee resettlement assistance: 1) a state-administered program, 2) a Wilson/Fish (WF) program, and 3) the public-private. Most states are enrolled in the state-administered refugee resettlement program, where they are reimbursed for the full costs of their refugee cash assistance (RCA) and refugee medical assistance (RMA) programs. The Cash and Medical Assistance (CMA) Program is part of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) Division of Refugee Assistance, and reimburses states for 100 percent of the services provided to refugees, as well as associated administrative costs. States also qualify for additional discretionary grants for different social services, and employment-related services. 

There is little cost to the states for refugee resettlement—and a lot to gain. Resettling families displaced by war is compassionate, but it’s also a smart way to give a lot of America’s cities a renewed jolt of energy. A number of studies actually confirm that refugees positively impact the economic conditions of receiving nations in the long-run. Refugees earn and spend money, which boosts economic activity. They start businesses, make investments, and launch new cultural and religious institutions. In the case of Syrian refugees, for example, many contribute heavily to numerous sectors of the U.S. economy because the population is educated and highly skilled.

In rustbelt cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit—cities that have struggled for decades to bounce back from the doldrums of deindustrialization—refugees have been the source of bottom-up revitalization. Refugees bolster flagging populations, expand tax bases, and launch scores of small businesses, transforming once desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods. 

Eighteen cities in the rustbelt alone have established programs to attract, integrate, and empower refugees.  In the late 1990s, an influx of Bosnian refugees to St. Louis led neighborhoods that had been heading toward “ghost-town status” into something much more. The area was, “teeming with new residents and new economic activity.” “Industrious Bosnians” ended up transforming a crime-ridden area into a “decent quarter.” 

This is hardly the only success story. In Oklahoma City, 7,000 Vietnamese refugees families “helped reshape a dying part” of the city and stabilized a declining neighborhood. In Utica, New York,  refugee families now make up 25 percent of the population. “[T]he refugees have renovated and revitalized whole neighborhoods,” says Anthony Picente, Jr., the county’s executive officer.

In Buffalo, refugees have changed “the overall vibe of the area and make it a more desirable place to live,” according to Denise Beehag, director of a local refugee resettlement agency. “They were pretty much the only group that was moving into the west side of Buffalo and taking over those vacant houses and vacant businesses,” she said. The Buffalo Mayor attributes the first rise in population in Buffalo in 70 years to refugees.  

Refugees offer cities more than a short-term fix. They continue to boost population and foster development well after the first wave of refugees arrive. They buy real-estate, launch new businesses, and start families. All of this helps expand and energize communities in the long term. 

8. Abolishing the Unaccompanied Minor Program

Notably absent from this year’s PD was any reference to the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program (URM), which assists unaccompanied refugee minors develop appropriate skills to enter adulthood and to achieve social self-sufficiency.

Since 1980, the State Department has worked to identify children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the U.S., but do not have a parent or a relative available and committed to providing for their long-term care. Since then, almost 13,000 minors have entered the URM program. At its peak in 1985, ORR provided protection to 3,828 children in care. Now in various states, ORR has about 1,300 children in its care. While most children are placed in licensed foster homes, other licensed care settings are utilized according to children’s individual needs, such as therapeutic foster care, group homes, residential treatment centers and independent living programs.

URM encourages reunification of children with their parents or other appropriate adult relatives through family tracing and coordination with local refugee resettlement agencies. However, if reunification is not possible, each program works to design a case-specific permanency plan for each minor or youth in care.

The implications of the omission are not yet clear, but with continued increases in the number of children being impacted by the worldwide refugee crisis, it seems problematic to allow for its dissolution. 

9. Inventing Resettlement Alternatives

The Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACAs) that the United States recently concluded with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are inauthentic efforts to offer protections to refugees and asylum-seekers. Although the administration asserts that these agreements—which have questionable domestic and international legal authority and are currently being contested at home and abroad—are necessary to protect refugees from making long journeys to seek safe haven in the United States, in reality, there are serious issues with these agreements. 

These countries lack the infrastructure to stand up a refugee processing center or offer asylum to natives of surrounding countries. Furthermore, they lack reliable law enforcement that can counter the active gang violence and corruption in the region; all of these countries struggle so seriously with violence, poverty, and corruption that they cannot protect their own citizens, let alone protect populations from surrounding countries. 

ACAs are not legitimate alternative to refugee resettlement, nor are they workable solutions for asylum seekers. The administration can’t argue its lowering refugee admissions because it has to handle asylum seekers and then gut the asylum process as well.

10. Dismissing Consultation Requirements

At the end of each summer, the president’s administration must report the estimated number of refugees in need of resettlement and the anticipated allocation for the coming fiscal year to both House and Senate Judiciary committees. Additionally, the president is required by law to provide for periodic discussion between designated members of the committees and representatives of the administration about the global refugee situation. Records of those discussions should be printed in the congressional record. 

Essentially, the Trump administration is flouting the law that requires robust congressional consultation prior to a finalized presidential determination. This administration’s complete and utter disregard for any of the rules included in the 1980 refugee act is glaring. Despite letters from Sens. Graham and Feinstein—chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary committee—the consultation process was once again a sham. 

Without legitimate consultation, the American people lack accountability measures to hold the administration’s feet to the fire on an annual basis. Requiring the president to appropriately consult with Congress for refugee admissions each year is not a courtesy, but a legally binding process that must be followed to ensure an adequate justification for a refugee cap is provided. Without an administration—or Congress—that recognizes the importance of consultation, the creation of resettlement policy will continue to lack the crucial safeguards of oversight. 

Not only have the Congressional consultation requirements been fully and egregiously rejected, states and localities now possess an option to deny resettlement in their jurisdictions, the domestic and international infrastructure to resettle refugees has been decimated, and bipartisan political support for the refugee program undercut.

It is indisputable that the Trump administration has completely reshaped the U.S. commitment to refugee protection, and the reverberations of those actions are felt around the world amongst allies, NGOs, and most acutely, the refugees themselves. 

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash