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Who is left behind when the U.S. resettles fewer refugees?

Forty years after the 1980 Refugee Act established the modern-day resettlement program, its bipartisan tradition is in jeopardy.

Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Refugee Act into law and created the modern-day refugee resettlement program in the United States. The law established a standardized process for the U.S. to welcome people escaping war and persecution. 

Under the law, the president sets a target number of refugees to be resettled in the coming year following consultation with Congress. This “ceiling” must be “justified by humanitarian concern or otherwise in the national interest.” For decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents took this responsibility seriously, striving to welcome an average of 95,000 refugees annually. 

Until now. The Trump Administration has set a record-low admissions ceiling each year in office. But when President Trump announced fiscal year 2020's refugee ceiling of 18,000 last fall, the administration went even further. On top of changing how many refugees the U.S. would resettle, it also made drastic changes to who the country would resettle—changes that leave the most vulnerable out in the cold. 

While decisions on who to resettle have historically taken into account both global needs and U.S. interests, the Trump Administration has removed the “needs-based” component of the program in favor of resettlement only based on national interests. Instead of admitting a significant portion of refugees based on their vulnerability, the administration has chosen to focus on four groups of “special interest” to the United States.

These groups are 1) religious minorities; 2) Iraqis who have supported U.S. missions; 3) refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America; and 4) other refugees of concern (including refugees granted admissions as a part of a U.S.-Australia agreement, those already approved for travel, and those referred by a U.S. embassy). The singular focus on these groups, combined with the low number of refugees being resettled, lock out thousands of those most in need of resettlement.

These changes amount to the dismantling of the resettlement program all together. Here are the numbers behind the administration’s attacks on resettlement:

The most vulnerable left behind

Admissions of refugees from the Middle East and South Asia have fallen 92 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2019.

While over half of all people in need of resettlement in 2020 come from these regions, just 17 percent of admitted refugees are from the Middle East or South Asia so far this fiscal year.

In addition, years of increased vettting requirements have slowed resettlement from some Muslim-majority Middle Eastern and African countries to a crawl. It is important to note that refugee resettlement was the hardest way to come to the United States even before the Trump Administration took office, with every refugee extensively screened and hand selected for resettlement by the U.S. government. 

Nearly halfway through fiscal year 2020, the U.S. has only resettled 134 Syrian refugees. 

With nearly 600,000 in need of resettlement, Syrians alone account for 40 percent of all global resettlement needs. The humanitarian crisis in the country has only deteriorated further in recent months, with fighting in the northwest leading to the largest displacement of civilians of the 9-year war. 

Year after year, the Trump Administration has left this population behind. The administration has cut the number of Syrians resettled in the U.S. 96% since taking office—from over 12,500 in 2016 to less than 600 in the last fiscal year. The number was even lower in 2018, when only 62 Syrians were resettled in the U.S. 

“The loss of the United States as a champion of refugee resettlement and refugee rights is echoing loudly throughout the world,” said IRC president and CEO David Miliband in a recent speech on the war in Syria. When the U.S. does its part, it helps our allies who are already doing more than their fair share. And although the headlines are dominated by people seeking safety in Europe or the United States, the vast majority of refugees—84 percent—are hosted in low- and middle-income countries neighboring conflict. In fact, as of 2016, 10 countries with just 2.5 percent of global GDP hosted over half of all refugees.

A 32-year-old man holds his 1 1/2 year-old daughter in Armanaz town in western Idlib.

Eyad, 32, with his 18-month-old daughter, has been displaced several times by the war in Syria. Syrians account for 40 percent of the nearly 600,000 people in need of resettlement worldwide.

Photo: Abdullah Hammam

The administration is not meeting its own goals

Close to the halfway mark of the fiscal year, the U.S. has reached only 1 percent of its goal to resettle 4,000 Iraqis who served alongside U.S. troops.

The administration is lagging behind in resettling some of the groups that it has agreed to admit this year. One such group is Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they served alongside the U.S. military as interpreters or other support staff. There are approximately 100,000 Iraqis who fall into this category and are already in the pipeline to be resettled. Many have faced threats to their life as a result of their critical support to the United States. 

Last year, 27 of the nation’s most distinguished retired military officers signed an open letter in which they called the U.S. resettlement program a “critical lifeline” for those who served alongside U.S. troops. They went on to ask the administration to “protect this vital program and ensure that the next refugee admissions goal is commensurate with global resettlement needs.”

The U.S. has reached just 10 percent of its goal to resettle 1,500 refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America in fiscal year 2020.

The administration has also fallen behind on its plans to resettle Central American refugees (a number that does not include asylum seekers stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border due to Trump Administration policies). Levels of violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are akin to those in the deadliest war zones in the world. 

Gang violence is rampant in the region. Women and girls are specific targets, with violence leveraged as a method to control families with threats, punishments and extortion. Valentina, a woman who was resettled in Texas after fleeing gangs in El Salvador, told the IRC, “In El Salvador, you don’t know if you’ll make it home alive at the end of the day.”

Americans still stand for welcome. 

A recent poll by Pew found that 73 percent of Americans believe taking in refugees who are escaping war and violence is an important goal.

Encouragingly, despite the administration’s divisive rhetoric, the number of Americans supportive of resettlement has even increased in recent years. It was only 61 percent in 2016. 

Reflecting the bipartisan history of refugee resettlement, this shift was driven in large part by a surge in support among Republicans. The majority of Republicans polled—58 percent—said that they support U.S. refugee resettlement, up an impressive 18 percentage points from 2016. 

“[Welcoming refugees] is not taking away, it’s adding to who we are,” said 45-year-old Jenny Hirst, a resident of Boise, Idaho. Hirst became close to Jacqueline Uwumeremyi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, through her church and spoke to the IRC about resettlement in the U.S.

How you can help 

Congress can take action to ensure the U.S.’s commitment to refugee resettlement reflects the welcome shown by everyday Americans. 

The Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement (GRACE) Act would restore resettlement to historic levels by ensuring the U.S. aims to welcome no fewer than 95,000 refugees each year. In doing so, it would preserve and strengthen America’s bipartisan tradition of welcoming refugees. 

Tell your members of Congress to support the GRACE Act today.