Will the Trump Administration End All Refugee Admissions?

At a time when the United Nations has identified more than 25 million refugees worldwide—people who cannot return to their home countries for fear of persecution or other dangers—the Trump administration is contemplating setting a zero refugee admissions target for fiscal year 2020. 

 Zero admissions. That means the U.S. might welcome zero women facing danger in refugee camps,  zero unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Africa or the Middle East, zero families from Syria whose lives have been destroyed. It would mean essentially dismantling the network of religious and community groups who have supported refugees for 40 years in the United States. And it would mean that the United States has abandoned its fundamental international humanitarian commitments, turning its back on a world that has looked to the U.S. for leadership in the protection of refugees.

( Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons )

Zero refugee admissions would be as cruel as it is short-sighted, but the Trump administration has been heading down this path for some time. As part of the infamous Muslim ban executive order in January 2017, Trump suspended all refugee admissions for a time and slashed the annual admissions number of 110,000 set by President Obama to 50,000 persons.  In fiscal year 2018, the President cut refugee admissions again, to 45,000 persons, and in 2019, to 30,000. Even those numbers are misleading, as the actual number of refugees admitted in fiscal year 2018 was only 22,491

In the face of daily news from the southwest border about the treatment of asylum seekers, it can be hard to keep straight the different Trump administration policies regarding asylum-seekers and refugees. In a nutshell, the administration is systematically reducing humanitarian protections for people all over the world—particularly targeting women and children—whether they are coming from the Northern Triangle to seek asylum or whether they are refugees from the Middle East, Africa or Asia hoping to find a new home in the United States. While both groups are refugees, U.S. law classifies those who apply for protection from within the United States as asylum-seekers/asylees, while those whose cases are determined outside the U.S. and are then admitted are called refugees. 

The Trump administration has limited access to asylum by closing off the border to asylum-seekers—separating families; returning applicants to Mexico to await hearings; eliminating key eligibility criteria based on domestic violence, gang violence and family relationships; and, most recently, forcing people to apply for asylum in other countries before they can apply in the U.S. In 2017, the administration also ended the Central American Minors (CAM) program, shutting off a vital lifeline for children in danger to seek safety in the United States; now, it is working to make it nearly impossible to access the U.S. border through a so-called “Safe Third Country” agreement with Guatemala.

Such practices are blatantly illegal and face vigorous legal challenges. Preventing the admission of refugees, on the other hand, is as simple as signing a piece of paper.    

The President, in consultation with Congress, is authorized to set the number of refugee admissions annually under the Refugee Act of 1980, recognizing that resettling people who have fled their country is both a humanitarian and a foreign policy concern. Back in the day, it was thought that the President’s discretionary authority would be wisely used to address emerging foreign policy and humanitarian crises more quickly than if Congress had to legislate the numbers each year. Until the inauguration of Donald Trump, this was more or less the case, with an average Presidential Determination of 95,000 people annually and actual admissions of about 80,000 refugees annually.  Even during the heightened political tension following the 9/11 attacks, President Bush did not slash admissions, recognizing that refugees should not be feared.

The Trump administration has taken a different approach, frequently relying on fear-mongering to justify turning our backs on refugees. It is a tone-deaf and highly political maneuver, ignoring the deep, bipartisan support for refugees within Congress and among the public. In fact, welcoming refugees remains one of the few truly bipartisan issues in America today. Some people support refugees out of a religious calling to welcome the stranger; others view it as part of the historic U.S. commitment to welcome the oppressed; others understand that refugees are vital contributors to the social and economic fabric of their adopted communities, while others view a strong refugee policy as a critical component of both foreign policy and national security.  These concerns are spurring legislative proposals to create minimum admissions numbers for refugees and to prevent future travel, refugee and asylum bans.

We need to tell President Trump that our arms our wide enough, and our hearts are big enough, to welcome refugees. And we need to do so now, before the 2020 Presidential Determination is issued at the end of September.

When my daughter was about three years old, we visited the Smithsonian ‘s World War I exhibit to look at the planes. What caught her eye, however, was a picture of women and children trudging along a road, fleeing their bombed-out village.  She later presented me with a messy blue fingerprint picture which she dubbed “A Picture of the Refugees and the Refugees Are in the Their New Homes.” 

If a three-year-old can understand the fundamental need to welcome refugees, surely the Administration can find it in their hearts to do so as well.  

Cutting refugee admissions will destroy lives and good will.  If you agree, let your members of Congress know that you want to hold the President accountable and make it clear that America still welcomes refugees. 


Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.