With less than a month left in fiscal year 2019, the president should be in the midst of consultations with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees over the proposed FY 2020 refugee admissions ceiling. The Trump administration has justified its dramatic decreases in refugee resettlement in the past two years by claiming to prioritize humanitarian aid and development. But the administration’s record contradicts this justification, laying bare a refugee policy that fails to protect displaced persons both domestically and abroad. 

Despite estimates that the need for global resettlement was expected to grow 17 percent last year, the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services justified the administration’s proposed refugee admissions ceiling of 30,000 by claiming to prioritize humanitarian assistance for displaced people “close to their homes.” 

In keeping with the administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, this aid would addresses the root problems leading to the need for resettlement. The Security Strategy identified localized humanitarian aid as having more potential for enabling displaced individuals to “voluntarily return home” than resettlement. Resettling refugees in the U.S. undermines the goal of repatriation while in-country aid allows vulnerable populations to return home when conditions improve — eventually.

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 supplementedby refugee resettlement; it did not supplantit. 

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 endaid 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, 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. 

Lowering refugee admissions and then slashing budgets that provide funding for humanitarian protection in the region producing the refugees is dangerous. State Department data for FY 2019 indicates just 83 refugees from Guatemala, 62 from Honduras, and 276 from El Salvador — 421 in total — have been resettled in the U.S. this year. 

This region has driven the surge of asylum seekers at the border in recent years but refugee resettlement figures remain low. Some in Congress, like Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), have sought to increase resettlement from this region as a strategy to channel some of the dangerous, irregular migration north into more orderly movement. But the proposed FY 2020 numbers suggest the message has not been received by the administration. 

The Congressional Research Service reported in July that the State Department was only planning on maintaining aid programs that help the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras  “counter transnational crime and improve border security.” Despite bipartisan support for aid in this region, Central America will see drastic cuts in agricultural programs, poverty alleviation, and law enforcement and community integration programs, which are necessary to allow individuals to remain there. 

It’s hard to interpret the administration’s refugee policy as anything but disingenuous and dismissive of its responsibilities under the law to properly consult with Congress over resettlement numbers, despite multiple Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressing deep concern over the lack of consultation. 

While there are myriad concerns for Congress to monitor on refugee issues, the administration’s duplicitous justification for lower admissions is paramount. The administration cannot use foreign aid programs as an excuse to lower the refugee cap — especially when those aid programs are more fiction than fact.  

Congress must demand that the 2020 report on refugee resettlement offer clear justifications for the new ceiling. 

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