WASHINGTON – Advocates for refugees in Eastern Washington and Idaho are crying foul after the Trump administration on Sept. 30 proposed a historically low cap on the number of people to be given refuge in the United States.
In a notification to Congress less than an hour before a statutory deadline, the administration proposed limiting refugee admissions to 15,000 in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, down more than 82% since Trump took office and the lowest cap since the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was established in 1980.
“For the fourth consecutive year this administration has cut the refugee program to record lows without providing any substantial research or data to justify such measures,” said Mark Finney, director of World Relief Spokane, a Christian group that helps refugees resettle in the Spokane area.
The move came just hours after the president told supporters at a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota, he had “ended the refugee influx into your state.”
“Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” Trump told the crowd. “Overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools and inundating your hospitals. You know that. It’s already there. It’s a disgrace what they’ve done to your state.”
In its announcement of the new cap, the State Department cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the administration’s “continuing commitment to prioritize the safety and well-being of Americans,” but Finney dismissed that concern, pointing to rigorous health screenings refugees have to pass and saying the administration has cut refugee admissions in past years with different rationales.
“It is troubling to see the president of the United States publicly disparage refugees while campaigning in Minnesota, then … his staff propose record cuts to the program under the pretext of public health,” he said. “There’s no reason that we should discriminate against a certain population like refugees any more than other international travelers.”
The cap for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was 18,000, but fewer than 12,000 refugees were admitted as the pandemic put resettlement on hold from March through July.
The United States has historically welcomed more refugees than any other nation. Resettlement in Idaho and Eastern Washington began at least as early as the 1970s, and the Refugee Act of 1980 marked the start of the modern U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, run by the Health and Human Services Department.
In the first two years of the program, the ceiling was set at more than 200,000 refugees per year before dropping to a low of 67,000 under President Ronald Reagan and rising above 100,000 again in the George H.W. Bush administration. Under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the cap held steady between 70,000 and 85,000 annual admissions.
The U.S. population, which was 226.5 million at the 1980 census, has now grown to 330.4 million, according to Census Bureau estimates.
“There has for a long time been a bipartisan consensus and commitment to refugee resettlement,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “Our refugee resettlement program is run largely through faith-based organizations, which built a faith-based constituency and support for the refugee resettlement program.”
World Relief, which is affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, is one of nine agencies that work with the federal government to place refugees in communities around the country. It has helped more than 10,000 people settle in the Spokane area since it opened its doors in 1992. It has been the only resettlement agency operating in Spokane, Finney said, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused a temporary drop in refugee arrivals.
One of Trump’s first actions as president, just days after his inauguration in January 2017, was a 120-day freeze of all refugees entering the country, along with the first iteration of his ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries. That move forced World Relief to close its office in Boise, one of more than 100 resettlement agency affiliates in the country to close their doors due to refugee limits under Trump.
“It’s hard on any organization to see a massive reduction in the population you serve,” Finney said, but he emphasized that the biggest impact is on refugees trying to reunite with relatives in the U.S.
“There are a lot of people here whose family members are still stuck overseas,” he said. “They’ve got a bedroom for them, they’ve got a kitchen table with a chair waiting for them. There’s plenty of opportunities and families that are waiting for spouses or children to come, and they just have to keep waiting.”
Idaho, which welcomed 1,115 refugees in fiscal year 2016, saw that number drop to just 201 in fiscal year 2020. In Washington, refugee admissions fell from 3,233 to 885 in that same period, according to state data.
“As a country and as a culture, for centuries we’ve welcomed people who have yearned for peace and safety and a better life for themselves and their families,” said Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, a nonprofit responsible for refugee services in the state.
“People who arrive here benefit, but our communities have also benefited tremendously through refugee resettlement,” Wolfson said, citing refugees working in essential roles in health care and Idaho agriculture. “Especially as we respond to COVID-19, I’ve learned a lot from people from refugee backgrounds about resilience, about continuing to have hope, about helping our neighbors.”
World Relief helped 613 refugees settle in the Spokane area in 2016 and just 154 in 2019. After Trump issued an executive order in September 2019 requiring individual counties to opt into accepting refugees, Spokane County commissioners voted to allow resettlement to continue.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president is supposed to consult with the House and Senate judiciary committees before the end of the fiscal year, although Congress is largely powerless in changing the refugee admissions cap. Democratic leaders of the House committee accused the administration of violating the law by never scheduling a consultation.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers signed a letter in October 2019 calling on Trump to increase the refugee limit. A spokesman for the Spokane Republican confirmed that she still supports a ceiling of 75,000.
“Washington state has a proud history of welcoming refugees from all over the world,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “Our economy and our communities are stronger because of their contributions. It’s important we continue to do our part to help those fleeing persecution.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited the pandemic for the refugee restrictions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a slowdown in refugee admissions, and Idahoans who work to support these communities have had to adapt to these changing circumstances,” the spokeswoman, Marty Cozza, said in an email. “As we continue to battle the COVID-19 outbreak, we are hopeful to return to normal operations and services for these populations.”
The ceiling is a maximum, not a minimum target, and in many years the U.S. has resettled far fewer people than the cap allowed. In fiscal 2018, 22,517 refugees arrived, roughly half the limit of 45,000. By setting that cap at a historic low, the U.S. guarantees it will end its legacy of welcoming more refugees than any other nation.
“The United States has ceded its position as the global leader in refugee resettlement,” Gelatt said. “Canada is now on track to accept more refugees, even though it’s a much smaller country, so that also sends a message around the world about the U.S.’s commitment to protecting vulnerable people from around the globe.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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