Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Trump administration has reduced the maximum number of refugees it will accept in the next fiscal year from 45,000 to 30,000, the lowest level since the current refugee-resettlement program went into effect more than three decades ago.  

“The improved refugee policy of this administration serves the national interest of the United States, and helps those in need all around the world,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a brief statement Monday. He did not take questions.

Humanitarian groups that work with refugees in the United States criticized the decision. “It’s awful,” Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, told me. “It’s a total abdication of American leadership.” He said the Trump administration’s decision would have a chilling effect for refugees worldwide because “other countries don’t have to do more when we’re doing less.”

Pompeo added that the decision was being made because of the backlog of asylum seekers currently in the United States, conflating for the first time two separate systems that have existed side by side. Indeed, an asylum seeker whose case is rejected by an immigration court will ultimately be deported. Refugees are those asylum seekers whose cases have been approved.

“Asylum is an obligation under international law—to give people asylum,” Hetfield said. “Refugee resettlement is a humanitarian tool that’s used to share responsibility with countries of first asylum that are hosting many times the number of asylum seekers that we’re hosting. It’s total distortion and no other administration has pulled that maneuver.”

The maximum number of refugees admitted into the U.S.—the so-called refugee ceiling—is the maximum number of refugees admitted into the country; it is not necessarily the number of refugees actually resettled in the United States. For instance, for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30, the refugee ceiling was 45,000, but the U.S. has so far admitted 18,214 people. This is not unusual. The U.S. admitted far fewer people than the cap in the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Fiscal year 2019 begins October 1.)

The 30,000 figure is the lowest refugee cap announced since President Ronald Reagan signed the Refugee Act in 1980. It beat the record set by the Trump administration last year of a ceiling of 45,000 refugees. U.S. presidents have, on average, set a ceiling of 95,000 refugees for a fiscal year.

News reports ahead of Monday’s announcement suggested that Pompeo and James Mattis, the defense secretary, had advocated for keeping the refugee ceiling at the present level of 45,000. Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser who supports decreasing immigration, and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, are reported to have urged a lower number. It appears they prevailed.

The numbers are indicative of the Trump administration’s approach to refugees. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump criticized the U.S. intake of refugees and appointed skeptics of immigration and U.S. refugee policy to top positions. One of his first acts as president was to order a ban on travel from several Muslim countries (though the vast majority of the world’s Muslims can still enter the U.S.) and a freeze on refugee resettlement. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has separated families on the southern border with Mexico and made seeking asylum there more difficult.

The decision coincides with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 68 million people have been displaced by conflict around the world, according to the United Nations. Refugees who have fled their country to escape war and persecution number 25.4 million, the UN data say. A small fraction of these refugees—less than 1 percent—are resettled overseas in countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia, as well as across Europe. These refugees typically cannot return to their home country.

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