Record Low Refugee Admissions Challenges Resettlement Efforts

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the Administration intends on admitting no more than 30,000 refugees in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. This proposal is the lowest annual ceiling since 1980, when this system of refugee resettlement began.

The number of refugees actually admitted may well end up even lower. In fiscal year 2016, 85,000 refugees were admitted to match the ceiling set. However, fiscal year of 2017, which started out with a ceiling of 110,000, we saw just under 54,000 refugees admitted. This fiscal year, with a ceiling of 45,000, only about 22,000 refugees have been resettled, and this pattern may well continue even with the already miniscule ceiling of 30,000.

Since 1980, the U.S. has led the way in resettling refugees, taking in over three million of the four million who have been resettled. Now, at a time when the need is greatest, when the global tide of refugees (more than 25 million) is higher than at any time since World War II, the U.S. is no longer leading the way. We are taking in a smaller and smaller share. If you consider the number of persons forcibly displaced by war, famine and other scourges (more than 68 million), the percentage is even tinier.

As distressing as the numbers are, the way in which refugee resettlement has been throttled is perhaps even more heartbreaking. Stymied by court challenges to initial travel bans that worked to lower refugee numbers, the President and those working for him have quietly and effectively used administrative procedures to accomplish the same thing, according to a growing body of evidence.

Initially, chaos in the wake of the President’s first travel ban in January 2017 caused long delays in medical and security checks. Then it got worse. Tighter vetting, more interviews, more paperwork requirements were imposed, such as 10 years’ worth of travel history, residential addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and information about close relatives. Two-thirds of security personnel doing refugee interviews for the Department of Homeland Security were siphoned off to deal with asylum claims on our southern border, conflating two different programs that the Administration has adequate resources to manage without shifting personnel. Refugees from Muslim-majority countries were especially hard-hit, suffering a 98 percent decline in admissions this year. Of 6.5 million Syrian refugees, only 60 have made it to the U.S.

What would previously have been seen as systemic flaws that needed to be fixed are now viewed as successes in the administration’s hardline approach to refugee resettlement. Philosophical opposition at the highest levels to cultural and racial diversity means that resettling refugees has become, at best, a very low priority. To be sure, there are proponents of resettlement who see genuine value in American humanitarian interests, but it’s not at all sure that their arguments will prevail.

In Missoula, refugee resettlement numbers here have stayed at healthy levels. This wonderful town has now seen 235 individuals come here to live since the International Rescue Committee in Missoula started bringing in refugees a little more than two years ago. Communities of people originally from Congo, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria are forging new lives in the Garden City, enlivening and enriching this community in the process. We know their successes and their struggles. We celebrate their presence.

But we have to look beyond our town. We need to be very concerned about what is happening to a humanitarian program that for decades has been a lodestar to oppressed and endangered people around the globe. Let's remember what defines a refugee: A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

If that definition resonates with you, you're probably among the folks who favor giving refugees shelter and opportunity, even though you know it's hard work, involves complex networks of willing individuals, and that results are not guaranteed. But you will probably agree that it's worth the effort, not just for refugees but also for us, generally more privileged, Americans. Refugees, by their resilience, teach us to be brave. By their fortitude, they model how to be patient. By their oh-so-different life experiences, they challenge us to be less self-centered. By their willingness to sacrifice, to work hard and to make a new life for themselves and their children, they show us the true meaning of optimism.

Communities around the country are ready and willing to take in refugees and resettlement agencies are ready to help them. But the minuscule numbers that will likely be admitted will severely test the vitality of those programs. The fact is, there's a long struggle ahead. There are strong humanitarian, economic and global security arguments for a robust refugee resettlement program--too many to address here. Defending and rebuilding refugee resettlement will be a difficult task. But we know you are with us and we value you as treasured partners in this mission.

 We ask that you let our elected leaders know that a ceiling this low is unacceptable. By law, the President must consult with the Judiciary Committee leadership before this number is locked in for 2019. Call the Judiciary Committee as well as Congressmen Tester, Daines and Gianforte at 1-855-472-8930. Join with us and the International Rescue Committee in urging Congress to #standwithrefugees and set the refugee admissions ceiling at 75,000 to ensure American remains a leader in protecting the world’s most vulnerable.

In love and Gratitude,

The Soft Landing Missoula Board and Staff