By Mica Rosenberg and Alexandra Alper
(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Thursday it plans to allow only 18,000 refugees to resettle in the United States in the 2020 fiscal year, the lowest number in the history of the modern refugee programme.
At the same time, President Donald Trump issued an executive order saying his administration would seek the approval of state and local governments to resettle refugees in their communities, in a shift for a federally directed programme.
Trump has made cutting immigration a centrepiece of his presidency. One of his first acts after assuming office in January 2017 was to issue an order capping the maximum number of refugees that year at 50,000, less than half the number former President Barack Obama had set a few months earlier.
The proposed new number includes specific carve-outs for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, a senior administration official told reporters.
Of the proposed 18,000 spots, 4,000 would be reserved for Iraqis, 5,000 for those fleeing religious persecution and 1,500 for people from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. That leaves 7,500, or roughly 40%, for all others.
In its justification for cutting the 2020 cap, the administration said the focus had to be on processing a backlog of asylum claims, most of which are filed by migrants from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees,” the State Department said.
The refugee cap was whittled down to 45,000 for 2018 and 30,000 for 2019, over the objections of senior officials in the Department of Defense, who view the programme as crucial to rewarding and building allies in U.S. military campaigns oversees.
Under U.S. law, the President must consult Congress before finalising the annual number of refugees it plans to accept.
Experts say the U.S. refugee resettlement programme, designed to take in people fleeing violence and persecution all over the world, serves mostly a different population than the immigrants arriving at the southwest border.
Beneficiaries are meant to include persecuted religious minorities, people whose lives are in danger for assisting the U.S. military, orphaned children, and victims of female genital mutilation, the experts say.
While prior policy apportioned refugee caps by region, “the administration’s proposed allocation links refugee admissions directly to U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities,” the senior administration official added.
Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement the proposal offers people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “the opportunity to seek refugee status close to home, rather than embark on a dangerous and often futile journey to the United States.”
The senior administration official said refugee arrivals, which had been temporarily suspended pending the release of the new resettlement numbers, should resume on October 22.
While a short suspension is typical, the weeks-long halt has left many refugees who had already booked their flights stranded.
The President’s executive order also potentially limits the places where those that are accepted can be resettled.
In the order, he said refugees should only be placed where state and local governments agree to receive them, to ensure “that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labour force.”
Mark Hetfield, chief executive of Jewish non-profit refugee assistance organisation HIAS said the executive order was an attempt by Trump to “allow governors and mayors to imitate his own refugee ban, state by state and town by town.”
He said while Trump could impose limits on where refugees are placed, “he can’t prevent them from moving to where they want to go. This is just foolish and mean spirited.”
Taken together, the executive order and the lowered refugee numbers “will all but ensure that people in need of safety will be left in dangerous conditions and separated from their families,” said Betsy Fisher, the director of strategy at the nonprofit group International Refugee Assistance Project.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Alexandra Alper, additional reporting by Kristina Cooke, Makini Brice, and Dan Trotta, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Tom Brown and Lincoln Feast.)