The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will dramatically reduce the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States, bringing the number to less than half of what former President Barack Obama had proposed for the current fiscal year.
The US plans to admit no more than 45,000 refugees in the coming year, with regional caps of 19,000 for Africa, 17,500 for the Near East and South Asia (which includes most Middle Eastern countries), 5,000 for East Asia, 2,000 for Europe and Central Asia, and 1,500 for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Unlike in previous years, this cap does not include a so-called “unallocated reserve” quota for the administration to respond to unforeseen upticks in refugees within one of the regions, a State Department official confirmed to CNN.
“The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern,” one senior US government official told reporters on a conference call, later adding that the number is “consistent with our foreign policy goals and operational capacity in light of additional security vetting procedures that we are implementing, and the domestic asylum backlog that (the Department of Homeland Security) is currently facing.”
The new cap is the lowest in decades for the US refugee admission program and marks an especially steep decline from recent years.
Last year, then-President Obama announced the United States would take in at least 110,000 refugees, up from 85,000 in the previous year.
But the effort stalled after President Donald Trump took office and signed an executive order temporarily halting refugee admissions. That order was delayed by legal action, but was ultimately implemented for refugees who could not demonstrate “bona fide” family ties in the United States.
As of Wednesday, State Department data shows that just over 53,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States this current fiscal year, which ends on Sunday.
With the new figures, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke shared with members of Congress Wednesday afternoon, the administration is further limiting resettlement.
As a presidential candidate, Trump often criticized the US refugee program, insisting that vetting procedures were insufficient to weed out applicants who might pose a security risk.
He was especially critical of the Obama administration’s pledge to take in Syrian refugees, saying in a CNBC interview, “We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork. … This could be one of the great Trojan horses.”
Within days of taking office, Trump signed an executive order which put a 120-day halt on all refugee administrations, and set an overall cap of 50,000 refugees for the year. That order was later revised, and became the subject of a prolonged legal battle that is still under consideration in the Supreme Court.
The 120-day pause ultimately took effect in June and will continue until late October. During that time, the Departments of Homeland Security and State are reviewing security vetting procedures with a view toward strengthening those before resuming resettlement.
The officials who briefed reporters on Wednesday emphasized that the US remains the world’s leading donor of humanitarian assistance, and leads in permanent resettlement of refugees (with a very slight edge over Canada).