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State Dept. Made the Right Call on FY2020 Refugee Admissions

author Published by Eric Ruark

The State Department last week released its ceiling for refugee admissions for FY2020. Set at 18,000, the ceiling is just above half of the 30,000 admissions in FY2019 and well below the ten-year admission average of 58,900.

Criticism of the FY2020 ceiling, including the outcry by refugee resettlement organizations, are largely predicated on the idea that refugee admissions can only ever increase, and that somehow the United States is abdicating its moral responsibility if admissions go down from the previous year.

This was the gist of a letter written by Senators James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Chris Coons (D-Dela.), signed by a bi-partisan group of 16 other Senators and sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan as the FY2020 ceiling was being considered by the Trump Administration.

Sens. Lankford and Coons wrote:

At a time when we are facing the “highest levels of displacement on record,” according to the UN Refugee Agency, we urge you to increase the refugee resettlement cap and to admit as many refugees possible within that cap. America has the responsibility to promote compassion and democracy around the world through assistance to vulnerable and displaced people.

Let’s leave aside the Senators’ claim that resettling refugees in the United States is a way to promote democracy around the world and concentrate on their call for compassion.

Americans are a very compassionate people and American has by far taken in the lion’s share of the world’s refugees that have been permanently resettled over the last thirty years.

The permanent part is key to understanding U.S. refugee policy, and an understanding that seems to be lacking on the parts of those Senators signing onto the above letter.

They refer to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) figure on displaced persons, but what they don’t say is that this number is 70.8 million. Surely, they are not urging President Trump to admit “as many as possible” out of of that population.

A displaced person is someone who has been forced to leave their home but not necessarily their home country. That is what distinguishes an Internally Displaced Person from a Refugee, the latter having crossed an international border and having “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” According to the UNHCR, there are 25.9 refugees worldwide, and about 80% (20.7 million) are living in countries neighboring their country of origin.

However, being a refugee generally isn’t a permanent condition. Most wish eventually to return to their home countries, and that is the goal of the UN and other international relief agencies. Only a very small percentage of refugees who have no real likelihood of ever being able to return to their homes will be permanently resettled.


As Nayla Rush at the Center for Immigration Studies has pointed out:

…most refugees chosen for resettlement in the United States are selected solely on the basis of referrals from UNHCR. As noted earlier, we know that only 17 percent (13,823 refugees) of UNHCR global resettlement submissions in 2018 were urgent or emergency ones. In 2017 that number was only 7.5 percent (5,639 refugees)….Assuming UNHCR’s global urgent and emergency submissions are up to 15,000 next year, and the U.S. focus is on resettling 36 percent of those cases only, then the FY 2020 resettlement ceiling should be 5,400. Should the United States decide to resettle 50 percent of those cases, we’d get a ceiling of 7,500. For 100 percent support, the ceiling maxes out at 15,000.

The letter sent by Sens. Lankford and Coons, and much of the criticism directed at the Trump Administration, are off the mark because they ignore the material facts surrounding U.S. refugee policy, most importantly the numbers.

By contrast, the statement put out by the State Department when the the refugee ceiling was announced was a clear articulation of how the refugee programs should fit into the immigration system.

The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees. Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense…It would be irresponsible for the United States to go abroad seeking large numbers of refugees to resettle when the humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border already imposes an extraordinary burden on the U.S. immigration system.


Most of these cases will not result in individuals being granted asylum, but the claims must be dealt with according to laws written by Congress, and the surge at the southern border is overwhelming the system. Sens. Lankford and Coons should without delay start working with their colleagues to address the border crises, which includes reforming the asylum system to prevent frivolous and fraudulent claims so that those most in need receive assistance.

The good news is that the Trump Administration has taken steps to stem the flow of illegal immigration into the United States, despite a Congress that sought to undermine those efforts, most recently by voting to end the state of emergency at the southern border. Fortunately, governments in Mexico and Central America have been more cooperative, working with the Trump Administration to dissuade illegal border crossings and to take in those who qualify as refugees. Recently, the UNHCR praised Mexico for doing its part to protect the lives of people in danger. This went virtually unnoticed in the U.S. press, who are largely concerned with blurring the lines between refugees (those who have fled their home countries and who are truly at risk of persecution), asylees (those who qualify as refugees and are already in the U.S.), and economic migrants (most of those trying to cross illegally into the U.S.).

As much compassion as we may have for the hundreds of millions of people who wish to come to the United States in the search of a better life, we must not blur the distinction between economic migrants and refugees, and we must not treat the refugee program as an alternative path to immigration for foreign nationals who do not qualify under other categories of admission.

True compassion means helping as many people as possible, and that means helping as many people outside of the United States as we can. While we can do our share, the United States cannot accept the vast majority of the world’s refugees. It is not compassionate to admit a small fraction of refugees while ignoring the plight of millions of others.

Setting reasonable limits on refugee admissions, and working internationally to care for and eventually return as many refugees as possible to their home countries, is the is best course for the United States to follow.

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

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