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Presidential determination

Why should America take in more refugees? Get the facts on the refugee cap.

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Photo: Sarah Stacke/IRC

The United States has long offered safe haven to people fleeing violence, tyranny, and persecution.

But as the Trump Administration slashes the number of refugees allowed into the country, American values, tradition, and interests are at stake.

Welcoming refugees is not just a lifesaving humanitarian imperative at a time when more people worldwide are uprooted by war and crisis than ever before. Refugee resettlement also enriches our economy and enhances our national security. Here’s what you need to know.

Who decides how many refugees can come to the U.S.?

The president consults with Congress and sets an annual target for refugee admissions. By law, this ceiling shall be “justified by humanitarian concern or otherwise in national interest.” The setting of the refugee admissions ceiling by the president is called the Presidential Determination, and is issued before the new fiscal year (FY) begins on Oct. 1.

This system was established by the 1980 Refugee Act. Prior to the current administration, the average annual ceiling exceeded 95,000. Presidents of both parties have set even higher ceilings: President Ronald Reagan’s highest ceiling was 140,000 and President Barack Obama set a refugee admissions target of 110,000 for 2017.

How many refugees are being admitted in 2020?

Editor’s note: The U.S. election has been called for former Vice President Joe Biden. As a candidate, President-elect Joe Biden promised to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 and to work with Congress to ensure a minimum ceiling going forward of 95,000, in line with historic norms. Learn more about what a Biden presidency means for refugees and asylum seekers

The Trump administration has set the maximum number of refugees allowed into the country in FY 2021 to just 15,000.

That's the lowest number since the creation of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in 1980 and marks the fourth year in a row that the administration has set the cap on refugee resettlement at a historic low. After decreasing the ceiling to 50,000 the first year of his presidency, President Trump then made further cuts to 45,000 in FY18, 30,000 in FY19, and 15,000 in FY20.

Refugee admissions in FY21 will be limited to specific categories, potentially leaving out more than 1.4 million of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Additionally, in a tragic continuation of the administration’s pattern of restricting resettlement for Muslim refugees, it has included strict restrictions on the resettlement of individuals from Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

“The Trump Administration continues to gamble with people’s lives as the president set the annual refugee admissions goal to a new historical low number of 15,000,” says the IRC’s vice president of resettlement, asylum, and integration Jennifer Sime. “This number is out of sync with the urgency that refugees waiting for resettlement abroad face and the growing instability across the world as new crisis zones continue to develop over old fault lines.”

The administration ignores its own priorities

Only 11,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in FY2020, part of a slowdown in resettlement that was underway well before COVID-19. Even refugees that the administration has said it is prioritizing for resettlement have not made it to the U.S. in meaningful numbers. 

For example, the administration has claimed to be prioritizing refugees in danger because of their work with the U.S. military. But while 4,000 Iraqis in this perilous position were supposed to be resettled in 2020 (out of an estimated 110,000 waiting to be approved), just three percent of that number have begun their new lives in the U.S.

Black and brown refugees left behind

Since the Trump Administration came into office, it has issued policies—from blocking people from majority-Muslim countries to turning away Central American asylum seekers at the border—that often disporportionately close the door on Black and brown vulnerable populations.

Cuts to refugee resettlement fall within this pattern. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa together accounted for over 90 percent of those in need of resettlement in 2019. But admissions from Africa have fallen 48 percent since the Trump Administration came into office while admissions from the Middle East have plummeted even more: by 92 percent. 

The United States is also failing to help refugees closer to home. The number of refugees from the Americas in need of resettlement is expected to rise 489 percent in 2021. But the Trump Administration is refusing to help, turning away asylum seekers at the U.S. border and slowing resettlement from the region to a crawl. 

Despite the administrations’ assertion that it would prioritize Central American refugees in 2019, only 703 were resettled from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as of August. Venezuelans have fared even worse, even as they account for 72 percent of resettlement needs in the Americas: only 20 were resettled in the U.S. in 2020.  

Why a low refugee admissions number won't suffice

Traditionally, the U.S. admissions ceiling has been set commensurate with global humanitarian need and U.S. strategic interests.

All around the world, people are fleeing war-torn countries at record levels. In 2019, an average of 24,000 people had to flee their homes each day. A full one percent of all of humanity is forcibly displaced.

26 million of these individuals are refugees, meaning they have had to cross an international border in their quest for safety.

There’s no end in sight to the refugee crisis, as conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria continue to deteriorate. Violence and instability in Venezuela, as well as gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have also put millions in danger.

Only those refugees most at risk—just one percent of the total—have a chance to resettle in the U.S. or another welcoming country. Most are fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, or terror. Many are widows, orphans, or victims of rape or torture. Some are in danger because they worked alongside American troops in their countries. Others are persecuted based on their ethnic group, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Refugee resettlement reflects American values

Presidents from both parties have ensured that America leads in times of crisis. They've supported refugees who seek liberty and have rejected ideologies opposed to American values. 

 5-year-old Jori walks to school holding her father's hand
Five-year-old Jori and her big brother, Majed, 8, refugees from Syria, are learning English and thriving in their new home in Dallas. Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

These presidents recognized that refugee resettlement represents the best of the values America strives to uphold: the right to equal treatment,; the commitment not to discriminate, and the determination to uphold human dignity. 

Republicans and Democrats have raised admissions for refugees fleeing communist uprisings, religious persecution, and tyranny in countries like Vietnam, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, Kosovo, Myanmar, and Iran. Today the U.S. must provide unwavering welcome for people fleeing the displacement crises of our day, like those fleeing political oppression in Hong Kong.

Refugee resettlement advances American strategic interests abroad

Welcoming refugees helps our allies hosting more than their fair share. Currently, the world’s poorest countries host the majority of the world’s refugees: 85% are hosted in middle and low-income countries that are likely already impacted by acute food insecurity and malnutrition.

If the U.S. refuses to show global leadership, we risk other countries closing their borders, shutting down refugee camps, and forcing refugees to return. This would have catastrophic consequences for regional stability and security—including the security of U.S. missions in those regions. But if the U.S. continues to lead on resettlement, this encourages other countries to do more.

Refugee resettlement is secure

The hardest way to come the U.S. is as a refugee. Every refugee is hand selected for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by U.S. security agencies in an exhaustive process.

See the vetting process in action.

Americans welcome refugees in their communities

Hundreds of communities across the country welcome refugees with open arms. Thousands of volunteers from faith and community groups help refugees adapt to the American way of life. The number of Americans volunteering to assist refugees far exceeds the number of refugees actually arriving.

“I don’t think we can quantify the impact that refugee resettlement has had on Boise,” says Pastor Jenny Hirst of Boise, Idaho. “From businesses to innovative ideas… that all makes us better people. And that’s what we need to express loud and clear to those in our country—it’s not a taking away, it’s adding to who we are.”  

In addition, hundreds of employers around the country work closely with resettlement agencies to hire refugees because they are reliable and hard-working.

Refugees and their friends in the U.S. share how they've changed each other's lives.

Refugees are good for the economy

Refugees are entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers, contributing to economic growth and creating jobs. Entrepreneurship among refugees is nearly 50 percent higher than among people born in the U.S.

Salam Bunyan and his wife Aseel in their Middle Eastern restauarant in Boise

Uprooted from Iraq and Syria, Salam Bunyan, his wife Aseel and their children were resettled in Boise, Idaho, where he has opened a Middle Eastern restaurant that employs Americans.

Photo: Jonathan McBride/IRC

During the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees have worked in the essential industries keeping our communities afloat. One in five of the refugees resettled in the U.S. by the IRC in 2020 immediately took positions in healthcare or the food industry.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is designed to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency quickly.  In 2019, 85 percent of clients in an International Rescue Committee employment program were economically self-sufficient within six months. And refugees pay on average $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.

Refugees have gone on to become CEOs, ambassadors, and influential economic and cultural figures, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Countless others, while not household names, have gone above and beyond to give back to their new communities. 

“I want the world to know that even with the pain and the struggle, and with the obstacles we’ve been through, we can still be part of a community that welcomes us,” says Jonathan Amissa, a business owner and refugee from Cameroon living in Boise, Idaho. “We are refugees but we also have potential and goals.”

What can I do to stand for refugees?

Speak out. Tell the nation's leaders to repair and rebuild refugee resettlement in the United States. Take action.

Robert, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in Phoenix, Arizona, holds an American flag and poses with his son while they both give a thumbs up.

Stand with refugees

Now is our chance to repair and rebuild refugee resettlement in the U.S.