Refugees around the world are waiting anxiously for the Trump administration to announce how many of them can come to the United States in the next year. Multiple reports from sources in the White House have said the number could be cut in half or even zeroed out, leaving families like Arooj Nirmal’s broken indefinitely.
Nirmal, a Pakistani Christian who lives in Spokane, Wash., escaped her home country in 2013 and found refuge in the United States. She fled because Muslim extremists targeted her family after her husband started a website telling stories of persecuted Christians. On a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Nirmal said her husband was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead. He only later escaped the country.
Now, he is in Sri Lanka—hardly a safe place for Pakistani Christians. The Sri Lankan government began deporting some Pakistani refugees in 2013, and the rest have languished in refugee camps. Nirmal’s husband was just 30 minutes away from the explosions when extremists bombed churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday this year, killing 259 people.
“I don’t think it’s a safe place anymore for a Christian refugee or others living there,” Nirmal said. “We ask government officials to please kindly take a generous look to all these cases. … We want to come to this good and beautiful nation.” The U.S. refugee resettlement program represents her only hope of reuniting with her husband, whose name she did not disclose for fear he would face retaliation for his faith.
President Donald Trump held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the annual target number for refugee admissions, which he is expected to announce before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The 1980 law governing the refugee program encourages the administration to take into account humanitarian interests, global needs, and strategic national security concerns. Until recent years, the refugee ceiling stayed higher than 95,000.
In 2017, the president set the target at 50,000 refugees. He has steadily whittled away at it since. In 2018, it was 45,000, the lowest level since 1980, and the United States welcomed only 22,491 refugees—roughly half of the goal. The administration cut the number again in 2019 to only 30,000.
The Department of Homeland Security selects the refugees, and multiple agencies screen them before they ever set foot on U.S. soil. The process can take years.
“There is no class of applicants that is more thoroughly screened than refugees,” said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria. “Not students, not tourists. … They’re screened, but no one gets the intense treatment refugees do.”
In the past, Republican and Democratic administrations have raised the ceiling to provide a safe haven for refugees of communist countries and those fleeing religious or ethnic persecution and tyrannical regimes. Today, Islamic State (ISIS), war, and persecution have displaced more than 70 million people around the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency. About 25.9 million are refugees who fled to other countries, and half of them are children.
The refugee program incentivizes people in conflict zones to form partnerships with U.S. military operations. Earlier this month, 27 retired generals and admirals urged Trump to keep the program alive.
“If today we turn these people away, or reduce the numbers who are allowed entry, it will be extremely difficult to ask others to assist us in the future,” Adm. Robert Natter and Gen. Mark Hertling wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column.
Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, said cutting the number of refugee admissions to zero could cause long-term damage to a system that is the “envy of the world,” adding, “No one does a better job of resettling refugees than the U.S. That’s infrastructure [that] won’t easily be restored, with severe implications for the long term.”