According to news reports, the U.S. government is considering effectively ending U.S. refugee admissions for 2020. Who would be most affected by this change?
The United States has a long history of refugee resettlement. The first refugees came as a result of World War II, under a special directive from President Harry Truman. That was followed by the first law about refuges in 1948.
But from that point until the 1980 Refugee Act, refugees came to the U.S. on a case-by-case basis. It was the end of the Vietnam War, and the crisis of people fleeing South Vietnam led to the U.S. passing its first real law about refugees. Since then, over three million people have come as refugees.
The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has been at the center of politics over the last several years. Tension has arisen between those that believe that the United States must do more to welcome refugees (given that the world has been facing a series of refugee and migration crises), and those who believe that the admission of refugees is an issue of national security.
What is often not well understood is how the program functions and exactly who is coming to the United States.
USRAP is a partnership between the U.S. federal government, which gets to say who comes, and voluntary agencies, namely nonprofits that receive funding from the U.S. government to provide help to refugees for the first three months. This is crucial, as refugees often arrive with very little in the way of personal resources, and need help finding a job and learning the English language.
The legal definition of refugee means someone who is running away from his or her original country because of persecution. Applicants who comes through USRAP have gone through a process to make sure that they fit the definition of a refugee, which process involves the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and also government officials from the United States.
Applicants for refugee status go through interviews to judge their trustworthiness and to make sure that they have not committed any crimes. They must also pass various security screenings.
Refugees come from all over the world. In fiscal year 2018, the United States resettled approximately 10,000 refugees from Africa, 3,000 refugees each from Asia and Europe, almost 1,000 refugees from Latin America, and almost 4,000 refugees from the Middle East and South Asia.
Historically, this number is quite low. The exact total number of refugees that came to the U.S. in 2018 was 22,491, which was the lowest since 1977, and the lowest since the beginning of the current refugee resettlement program.
The Trump administration lowered the number of refugee admissions drastically in 2017, causing partner nonprofits to struggle with funding and the backlog of refugees who had already been approved to come.
The U.S. government has several times considered effectively pausing the refugee program for the whole fiscal year of 2020. While the government could not end the program itself, because it is written into the law, the president has the authority to set the annual limit of refugees.
What the government is currently considering is setting the number at zero. This would effectively abolish the refugee program for that year.
Cutting refugee admissions to zero would, for starters, affect the refugees themselves. Many people wait a long time for resettlement, and there are not enough places for those who need it.
In 2018, the UNHCR made around 80,000 submissions for resettlement, but countries accepted only about 55,000 people. This was only about 10% of the people that the UNHCR estimated needed resettlement, and about .2% of the global refugee population.
Refugees are people fleeing humanitarian disasters, conflict, and persecution, and they are often in extremely vulnerable situations. The resettlement program is a way to help some of the most vulnerable refugees who will not be able to return home.
Second, cutting refugee admissions to zero would affect many U.S. permanent residents and U.S. citizens who have family members in the refugee process. While a permanent resident may sponsor a spouse or child, and a U.S. citizen can additionally sponsor siblings and parents, there are many people who have adult children, cousins, grandparents, and other relatives who are desperately waiting their turn. These people might never have the chance to come and see their family members, or they may have to wait longer to do so.
Third, it would affect the people who work with refugees. The nonprofits that resettle refugees depend on the refugee program to fund their work. When the current administration decided to lower the amount of refugees, many of these agencies had to lay off staff and cut their expenses.
They have survived so far, but if the number of refugees is brought to zero, some of these agencies will have to close their doors. This means that if the refugee program is restarted, there will be a shortage of qualified personnel and organizations to help them come to the U.S. and get established.
Lastly, a cutoff of refugee admissions will affect the international reputation of the United States. The current administration has severely restricted the application of both asylum and refugee law. Many international organizations and nonprofits have criticized the government for removing ways to come to the United States as a refugee during one of the greatest global refugee and migration crises within the past century.
Therefore, this proposed change could have long-lasting consequences for the U.S. as a nation and for refugees around the world.
Effective Date: July 22, 2019