Refugee Program Cuts Are Designed to Last (Michelle Hackman, Wall Street Journal)

Posted 10/21/2019

Trump Administration's Scaledown of Refugee Program Is Built to Endure

The Trump administration's decision to reduce this year's refugee cap to a record-low 18,000 people is just one step in its broader plan to shrink the program and make it harder for any future administration to quickly resume accepting refugees.

The government has increased vetting of most refugees, slowing the arrival of people who were previously approved. It also said last month that it would stop accepting most new referrals from the United Nations agency that coordinates world-wide refugee resettlement, meaning almost no new applicants will enter the yearslong process required for resettlement in the U.S.

The administration also this year introduced a new system of setting caps for special categories of refugees, including Iraqis who aided the U.S. military and people fleeing religious persecution, within its larger cap of 18,000. As a result of other steps it has taken to slow their processing, the real number of refugees admitted to the U.S. this year could fall well beneath that target.

President Trump hasn't finalized the 18,000-person cap, though the fiscal year began Oct. 1, and the State Department has cancelled refugee flights through Oct. 28.

Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli, who oversees refugee vetting, said the slowdown is partly caused by the large number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum, for which people fleeing persecution and violence can apply once they are already on U.S. soil. Mr. Cuccinelli said resources are being put toward processing those cases.

The administration has taken separate steps to curtail asylum applications, particularly from Central American migrants, who made up the majority of the nearly one million people crossing the border last year, including requiring those migrants to apply for humanitarian protection in other Central American countries.

President Trump and immigration officials in his administration say the more restrictive refugee policy is necessary to protect national security. Officials add that the cost of bringing refugees to the U.S. far exceeds that of helping a greater number of refugees resettle closer to home.

They have also said that refugees, who are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries, rely on public assistance at higher rates than other U.S. taxpayers and are a drain on government resources. But studies have shown that the taxes refugees pay are a net benefit to the government.

The moves are also part of the administration's strategy to curb legal immigration to the U.S. Several courts this month temporarily blocked an administration policy, known as the public-charge rule, that would have barred entry or green cards for many legal immigrants who have used government assistance programs or are deemed likely to in the future.

Mr. Trump also signed a proclamation this month requiring most legal immigrants entering the country beginning in November to demonstrate they will have health insurance-a requirement that immigrant advocates have called an income test.

Advocates for the refugee program point out that people who move to the U.S. under the program go through more extensive security checks than any other class of immigrants.

"The president has mischaracterized this program and used it as a political wedge issue in a thoroughly irresponsible manner," said Eric Schwartz, president of advocacy group Refugees International and former head of refugee admissions at the State Department under the Obama administration.

The cuts also come at a time when the number of refugees around the world has risen to more than 70 million, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a total not seen since World War II. The U.S., long the leader in admitting refugees, lost that title to Canada for the first time in 2018.

The State Department's ending acceptance of most new refugees into the pipeline will make it particularly difficult for any future administration to reverse course quickly, since there wouldn't be enough people vetted and ready to come.

Write to Michelle Hackman at

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NOTE: The text above reflects the entirety of the story which appeared in the October 21, 2019 printed edition of The Wall Street Journal. The link includes a longer story, all of what appeared in the print edition plus some additional information.

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