How Many Refugees Will Trump Let In?

The administration’s limit could be a new low.

A sign welcoming refugees lies on a bench
Brian Snyder / Reuters

A bipartisan group of 34 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Trump on Tuesday urging him to set a “robust” refugee admissions goal for fiscal year 2018, which begins October 1.

The letter, which was signed by, among others, Senators Jeanne Shaheen, the New Hampshire Democrat; John McCain, the Arizona Republican; and Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, is an attempt to urge the Trump administration to rethink the figure of 50,000 refugees he requested in a draft budget submitted to Congress. The senators called that figure, which was less than half of the cap President Obama set for his last year in office, “insufficient when compared to the millions of people who have been forced to flee their countries.”

Trump is expected this week to announce the refugee cap for the next fiscal year, and one source familiar with the discussions told me the number could be 45,000, a figure also reported by The Wall Street Journal citing its own sources. That number is not only lower than the 50,000 the nine nonprofit groups that help resettle refugees in the U.S. had expected based on the president’s budget proposal, it’s far lower than the 75,000 refugees they had hoped to convince Trump to admit in the coming year. The number would be the lowest refugee cap announced since President Reagan signed the Refugee Act in 1980. Since then, U.S. presidents have, on average, set a ceiling of 95,000 refugees per fiscal year. The refugee groups I spoke to said they had seen numbers under discussion within the administration ranging from 40,000 to 45,000. But no official announcement has come yet, and the final figure could still be lower or higher.

Kay Bellor,  the vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told me that if indeed the cap is set at 45,000, she would be “so disappointed, so disappointed that that would be the number,” adding: “It’s kind of disgraceful.” Bellor, whose group is one that helps resettle refugees in the U.S., said the scale of the refugee crisis worldwide—with the highest figure of displaced people since World War II—had prompted “crises that require U.S. leadership.”

“This is not U.S. leadership, and it does not comport with our history of providing refuge,” she said. “It’s not an adequate response.”

It’s important to note that the refugee ceiling represents the maximum number of refugees the U.S. will admit in a given year; the U.S. can also choose to admit a number far lower than the cap, as occurred immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001. For the subsequent several years thereafter, the numbers of refugees admitted into the U.S. fell sharply despite the cap remaining unchanged. The goal of refugee resettlement groups once the new cap is announced, those I spoke to said, would be to push the administration to make sure that the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. is as close to the ceiling as possible.

“We have to make sure that that number of refugees actually comes in,” Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, the Jewish refugee-resettlement organization, told me. “And during the Obama administration, most years, they came within less than a 100 [refugees] of that ceiling, ... but it took a lot of pushing to make that happen.”

He added: “[W]e’ve dealt with numbers that have been this low before—in terms of the number of refugees coming in.”

“The infrastructure to resettle refugees will survive with a number like 45,000, but that should hardly be what we’re looking for,” he said. “But with numbers lower than that, it would be difficult.”

Finding 45,000 refugees to resettle in the U.S. will not be difficult. Some 250,000 refugees [worldwide] are at various points in the referral process of coming to the U.S. “Usually, a ceiling is a number that speaks to our capacity and speaks to our commitment,” Bellor said. “It’s not just a random number. Even if it’s the unacceptably low number of 45,000, let’s make sure that 45,000 are admitted.”

But before the administration announces its number, it is required by law to have a formal, Cabinet-level consultation with Congress before Saturday, when the fiscal year ends. This has not happened yet, the people I spoke to in refugee agencies told me Tuesday. If the administration makes an announcement before consultations, it could prompt an outcry from members of Congress—because it would be in technical violation of the 1980 law.

Congress can pass resolutions or legislation that could change the current way the administration sets the refugee cap. It could also, through the appropriations process, pass a budget that sets the ceiling higher. Congress can also, as it did Tuesday, send letters and weigh in directly with the administration.

A recent Heritage Foundation report on the U.S. refugee-resettlement program recommended, among other things, that Congress should play a bigger role in setting the refugee quota. The report suggested that if the president wanted to deviate dramatically from the average rate of U.S. refugee resettlement, as Trump is reportedly set to do, he should need congressional approval.

“It would mean you wouldn’t see any dramatic swings in U.S. refugee resettlement like you did during [the Obama administration] when it increased to 110,000 [in fiscal year 2017 from 85,000 in fiscal 2016] and, of course, under the Trump administration,” Olivia Enos, one of the report’s authors, told me. “You wouldn’t experience any of those swings because the president would be required to consult Congress before doing anything too low or too high.”

But there is one other possibility that is worrying refugee advocates—that Trump does not announce a new number for refugees by the end of this fiscal year.

“If the number isn’t set by Saturday, if the consultations do not happen by Saturday, then refugee admissions next week will not happen,” Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, another of the refugee-settlement groups, told me. Refugee admissions are planned by fiscal year. No refugee ceiling at the end of a fiscal year means no refugee resettlement in the next fiscal year—until there’s a new number.

If that happens, Smyers said, “it could be another way for the administration to continue to wreak havoc on the refugee admissions program.”