Since the start of the Trump presidency, refugee admissions have fallen considerably, and recent reports suggest they will fall further still. Without the consent of Congress, President Trump can only do so much to curb immigrant admissions overall. But he does have expansive authority over refugee admissions, and he is using it to implement at least part of his restrictionist agenda.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president, in consultation with Congress, is charged with setting a refugee ceiling, a hard limit on total refugee admissions, which can be adjusted in tune with changing foreign-policy priorities. During the Obama years, the refugee ceiling started at 80,000 in the 2010 fiscal year, the level set at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration. President Obama then lowered the ceiling to 76,000 in FY2012 and to 70,000 in FY2013 before raising it to 85,000 in FY2016 and, in the last year of his tenure, to 110,000 in FY2017. Having campaigned on slashing refugee admissions, President Trump set the FY2018 ceiling at 45,000, the lowest since the Refugee Act was signed into law, and actual refugee admissions are expected to come in at half that level.
Before Trump’s singular presidential campaign, widespread skepticism about the wisdom of admitting refugees in large numbers had little effect on policy makers, as leading members of both major parties shared a commitment to the refugee resettlement program, often because they saw refugee admissions as an invaluable foreign-policy tool. That elite bipartisan consensus is now a thing of the past. Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top policy advisers, has pressed for even steeper reductions in the refugee ceiling for the coming fiscal year, to the consternation of senior diplomats and military officials. We’ll soon know if Miller will get his way. I would be surprised if he did not. For one, Trump apparently believes that lowering the refugee ceiling is good politics, and there is reason to believe he’s right.