Donald Trump's Other Wall

The Trump administration is expected to announce a stricter cap on the number of refugees who can enter the U.S. next year.

Four people walk past a sign that says "Welcome to the United States"
Passengers arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport after on June 26. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

President Trump offered Tuesday a glimpse into his administration’s refugee policy when he told the UN General Assembly that the U.S. supports efforts to host those displaced by conflict “as close to their home countries as possible,” calling it “the safe, responsible and humanitarian approach.”

“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region,” Trump said.

The president’s remarks reinvigorate the fierce debate over how many refugees the U.S. should admit each year, what they cost, and whether they pose a security risk. Those issues were the centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign in which the real-estate mogul cited the terrorist attacks in Europe as a reason for why the U.S. should be more discerning about those it allows into the country.

Trump’s speech Tuesday was reportedly drafted by Stephen Miller, his adviser who is an immigration hard-liner; the basis for the claim on the costs of resettling refugees came from a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration. But that study was based specifically on data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from the Middle East, where there’s been an influx of refugees migrating to neighboring countries and Europe as a result of the Syrian civil war.

The president’s remarks at the UN on Tuesday foreshadowed the administration’s expected announcement on the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in the next fiscal year. That announcement could come as early as next week. The Obama administration had set a cap of 110,000 refugees for this fiscal year; the Trump administration reduced that to 50,000. Refugee advocates say they want the Trump administration to accept at least 75,000 refugees in the next fiscal year, but there’s little indication the number will come even close to that. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Miller has advocated for around 25,000 refugees, and that the Department of Homeland Security proposed a cap of 40,000. That number would be the lowest since 1986, when the Reagan administration set a cap of 67,000. (A cap is the ceiling on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. It is not necessarily the number actually granted admission. For instance, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the refugee cap remained the same, but the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. fell dramatically.)

Trump’s remarks at the UN highlight a contentious debate over what it costs to resettle a refugee in the U.S. The Times obtained a document that showed the Trump administration rejected an estimate from the Department of Health and Human Services that the net fiscal impact of refugees from 2005 to 2014 was positive, at $63 billion. That estimate took into account factors like the payment of federal, state, and local taxes.

Proponents of reduced immigration and refugee admissions counter, however, that in the first four years after refugees are admitted, they use more social services than native-born Americans. Both assessments are accurate, but differ in how the math is done: HHS ultimately submitted a report that compared the costs of refugees to native-born Americans without taking into account their revenue contributions. There’s little expert consensus over whether immigrants tend to cost the system more than native-born Americans.

“The fact that there are studies that our government is conducting that are somehow either not being shared with the president or being disregarded or ... certain findings [are] being excised out if they are not in line with a particular worldview should be very disturbing to everyone,” Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, the Jewish refugee-resettlement agency, told me on Tuesday. She said the figures in the HHS report were “an assertion … not necessarily a fact.”

Refugee advocates say accepting refugees is not only the right thing to do; it also make foreign-policy sense. Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat who served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during both the Bush and Obama administrations, said: “The United States sadly has not in recent years led on the issue of refugees, and we have seen the impact it’s hard on European solidarity  and unity.” He was critical of President Obama: critics say he did not respond quickly enough to the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis it prompted in Europe.

“This is a defining moment in many respects for the United States ... and the world,” Crocker said, urging the Trump administration to accept at least 75,000 refugees in the next fiscal year. “If we don’t make that gesture, we’re much more broadly moving away from American leadership on this issue.”

The U.S. has traditionally resettled far more refugees than being discussed in the present debate. This fiscal year, which ends September 30, so far some 52,282 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. Their top five countries of origin are the Democratic Republic of Congo (9,110), Syria (6,532), Iraq (6,824), Somalia (5,977), and Burma/Myanmar (4,900). In fiscal year 2016, of the almost 85,000 refugees admitted, the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Syria, and Myanmar/Burma,  in that order, accounted for about half. (The U.S. provides more money to refugees around the world than any other country, but the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees live in camps in the world’s poorest nations that often border restive regions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.)

Part of the reason refugee advocates are worried about the numbers that might emerge from the Trump administration is that the president and some of his closest aides have said they view refugees as a security risk. Refugee advocates counter that no one in the U.S. has been killed by a resettled refugee since the attacks of September 11, 2001. (The family of the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, entered the U.S. as tourists before applying for asylum. Tourists are subject to far less scrutiny than potential refugees to the U.S.) One of Trump’s first actions as president was to issue an executive order that severely restricted immigration from several Muslim countries, suspended all refugee admission for 120 days, and barred all Syrian refugees indefinitely; much of that order has been ensnared by legal challenges, though parts of it have been allowed to move forward. Despite those challenges, Trump’s rhetoric on refugees has remained consistent, and is one of his defining issues.

Nezer told me that the issue of refugees is one of the only issues that has “consistently been in the crosshairs. ” She declined to speculate about the motives for Trump’s position, but they are in line with the president’s America First policy.

Immigration advocates say, however, that if the Trump administration sets a dramatically reduced cap on the numbers of refugees admitted into the country, they will turn to Congress where there is bipartisan support for refugee admissions. The recent short-term funding bill recently approved by Congress funds refugee resettlement through the end this calendar year.

“We would obviously prefer for the president to do the right thing here, but if he does not, we will be turning to Congress and expecting them to respond,” Nezer said in the same conference call at which Crocker spoke. She added: “As you know, in Washington nothing’s ever a completely done deal.”