Will the U.S. Allow in Any Refugees Next Year?
Each fall, at the direction of the Refugee Act of 1980, the president issues a determination setting a cap on the number of refugees who may be admitted to the United States for the next fiscal year. The first year, the cap was 231,700, though 207,116 refugees were actually admitted. The limit plunged dramatically over the next three years, rose again during George H.W. Bush’s administration, and hovered between 70,000 and 91,000 in the two decades between 1996 and when President Donald Trump took office. The Obama administration’s cap for 2017 was 110,000, but Trump lowered it to 50,000. For 2018, he dropped it to 45,000, then 30,000 the next year. The 2020 cap was just 18,000, and only half that number have been admitted, thanks in part to the administration’s pandemic immigration bans. For fiscal year 2021, will any refugees be admitted to America at all?
That’s an open question, because the deadline for Trump to issue his order is today, and an order has yet to appear. It could well arrive by midnight—last year’s cap was a last-minute affair—but it also may not arrive at all. Without a presidential determination, the cap will default to zero (a few special cases aside).
This is an arbitrary and cruel system both for refugees themselves and for the American refugee resettlement organizations trying to serve them. Trump should reverse his course toward eliminating refugee admissions altogether, setting the 2021 ceiling at 95,000, as requested by resettlement agencies this year and last year. More importantly, the entire approach to refugee admissions caps should be reformed so lives and organizational livelihoods no longer hang in the balance of presidential whim.
There are around 26 million refugees worldwide, people who, per the definition in that 1980 law, are “unable or unwilling to return to [their] country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” More than 100,000 are refugees already in the State Department’s backlog, many of them cleared for resettlement in the United States after extensive vetting (see some firsthand accounts of the multi-year admission process here) and hoping to reunite with family members already living here. If approved to travel her
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