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How to make sure America welcomes refugees—no matter who is president

America’s tradition of welcome is under attack, but we can restore the country’s legacy as a safe haven for the world’s most vulnerable.

With nearly 26 million refugees throughout the world today—a record high—we need countries to open their doors to people fleeing violence and persecution. Under the Trump Administration, the United States is doing the opposite.

Recently, the Trump Administration proposed a 2020 annual admissions ceiling for refugees of 18,000. That’s down from the already record-low 30,000 admissions ceiling in 2019, and far below the annual average of 95,000 since the resettlement program began in 1980. Refugees are being left in limbo. Families do not know when they will be reunited, and vulnerable people are stranded in dangerous situations. Instead of continuing America’s proud legacy as a safe haven, the Trump Administration is systematically dismantling the U.S. resettlement program.

These attacks on refugees are out of touch with the American public. Public opinion polls continue to indicate that levels of support for welcoming refugees are among the highest they have ever been. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19) recently introduced a bill, known as the Guaranteed Refugee Admissions Ceiling Enhancement (GRACE) Act, that would ensure that government action reflects Americans’ compassion. If passed, it would restore refugee admissions to traditional levels and protect refugee resettlement in the United States for years to come.


Who decides how many refugees will be resettled in the U.S.?

The modern framework for refugee resettlement was established by the 1980 Refugee Act. Every year, the president is legally required to consult with Congress to determine the number of refugee admissions for the next fiscal year (which begins Oct. 1). This process is called the Presidential Determination and the decision must be made by the end of September. By law, this ceiling shall be “justified by humanitarian concern.”

The U.S. hand-selects every person who is admitted under this program. Refugees do not get to choose where they are relocated and the process is not easy. In fact, there is no harder way to come to the U.S. than as a refugee. Applicants must first register with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which identifies the families most in need. Security screenings are intense and led by U.S. government authorities, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other law enforcement and security agencies.

The GRACE Act would ensure that the U.S. admits at least 95,000 refugee women, men, and children each year in line with historic norms.

What would the GRACE Act change?

The GRACE Act  would ensure that the U.S. admits at least 95,000 refugee women, men, and children each year in line with historic norms. 

The bill would also increase transparency into the resettlement program to ensure that the administration takes the necessary steps to achieve the admissions goal. Additionally, the GRACE Act would ensure that America is doing its fair share by requiring the administration to consider the global need while determining the refugee admissions number.

Why 95,000 refugees?

This is the average refugee admissions ceiling since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act.

Resettlement has long enjoyed bipartisan support during both Republican and Democratic administrations. In fact, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush set some of the highest ceilings in the history of the program. 

A minimum of 95,000 refugees admitted each year would restore the program to normalcy and ensure that America remains a beacon of hope for those seeking safety for years to come.

Why is the GRACE Act needed today? 

The Trump Administration has abandoned decades of bipartisan consensus on refugee admissions, leaving people in desperate need of protection out in the cold. This includes families in need of reunification and people at risk due to their support of American missions abroad, including local translators who have worked with the U.S. military. 

Of the millions of refugees around the world, less than one percent of the most vulnerable are resettled in countries like the United States. While the number of people in need of resettlement has increased drastically, the U.S. has stepped back from its traditional leadership role as the nation that resettles the most refugees. The U.S. took in just shy of 25% (22,900) of all refugees resettled in 2018, a sharp contrast with the more than 50% (96,900) of resettled refugees who were welcomed to the U.S. in 2016. 

Between 2017 and 2018, admissions of Christian refugees declined by 36 percent while admissions of Muslim refugees fell by 85 percent. While no religious group has been spared, Muslim refugees have borne the brunt of the cuts in admissions.

The already small number of global resettlement slots declined more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2018, even as host countries like Bangladesh, Colombia and Ethiopia have seen their refugee populations swell (Most refugees are hosted by neighboring countries, with developing and middle-income nations hosting 85 percent of the world’s refugees). If the U.S. refuses to do its part to address the global refugee crisis, other countries will be encouraged to close their borders as well. Such an outcome could have catastrophic consequences for regional stability and security, including the security of U.S. missions in volatile regions.

Tatjana Andrews travels to DC to advocate for resettlement

“America is a second chance for families torn apart by war and conflict,” says Tatjana Andrews, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Bosnia when she was five years old and who has traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for resettlement.

Photo: Andrew Oberstandt

Refugees make our communities stronger and more dynamic. Beyond the humanitarian necessity of helping people in need of safety, refugees contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. They come to the U.S. eager and ready to work, and go on to become engineers, teachers, business owners (entrepreneurship is nearly fifty percent higher among refugees compared to the rest of the American population), and more. They contribute to growing fields in need of workers, like health care and transportation. Some have succeeded as CEOs, ambassadors and influential cultural figures. As decades of resettlement have proven, refugees bring economic potential to our shores. 

Perhaps most importantly, the GRACE Act is crucial because today’s refugees are just as in need of support as those that came before them. “America is a second chance for families torn apart by war and conflict,” says Tatjana Andrews, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Bosnia when she was five years old and who has traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for resettlement. “I represent not only myself but my community…and the millions of families that are just like mine, who are seeking safety away from war, persecution and disaster.”

What can I do to help?

The IRC is asking members of the House of Representatives to co-sponsor the GRACE Act. Call your member of Congress to ask that they take a stand for resettlement by co-sponsoring the GRACE Act today

We are also gathering 95,000 petition signatures to call for the U.S. to admit at least 95,000 refugees. Sign our petition today and then be sure to share it with your friends and family.