U.S. lowers its refugee ceiling
Compassion | The Trump administration sets admissions at just 15,000 for next year
by Charissa Koh
Posted 10/07/20, 04:57 pm
Kree Paw heard her mother’s stories of hiding from oppressive Burmese soldiers in the country’s thick jungles. Paw, 28, grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her mother described fleeing their village in Burma, also known as Myanmar, each time soldiers came through.
When Paw was 4, the family moved to one refugee camp where they stayed for 10 years, hoping to resettle in the United States. Their opportunity came in 2007 when they moved to Raleigh, N.C. “It was like going to a different world,” Paw said. “It was my first time going out of the camp.” Most of her family still lives in Raleigh. Paw got married two years ago and lives nearby with her husband and new baby.
But fewer refugees’ stories are turning out like Paw’s. On Sept. 30, the Trump administration announced a record low U.S. refugee ceiling for the 2021 fiscal year, blaming a backlog of asylum claims. The decision could leave many refugees in crowded camps with poor health conditions. Meanwhile, the number of people displaced from their homes around the world grows.
From President Barack Obama’s 2016 ceiling of 85,000, Trump has reduced the maximum number of refugees who can enter the United States each year. Just before the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services submitted a report to Congress setting the 2021 cap at 15,000, the lowest it has ever been.
The report predicts the government will receive more than 300,000 refugee and asylum applications in the next year. It did not say how many of the asylum claims the government would accept, but it focused on the backlog of those applications and the need to stabilize situations that cause people to flee their home countries. Like refugees, asylum-seekers ask to live in the United States after fleeing war or persecution at home. But asylum-seekers submit applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services once they have entered the country, while refugees wait in other countries while the State Department coordinates with various agencies to screen their requests for admission. (A Trump administration policy requires asylum-seekers crossing the southern U.S. border by land to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed, but the rule does not apply to all ports of entry.)
“The continued conflation of the asylum and refugee processes is problematic,” said Jenny Yang, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at World Relief. “They are handled by completely different agencies and supporting entities and serve different but equally valid purposes. Reducing refugee resettlement will not mean that the U.S. is able to process asylum cases more quickly.”
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a group of Christian organizations including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the National Association of Evangelicals, expressed concern about the low ceiling. World Relief has joined other religious groups in asking the president to increase the number of refugee admissions to 95,000. “The White House has made explicit promises to protect persecuted Christians abroad,” World Relief President Scott Arbeiter wrote. “Instead, we’ve seen the resettlement of refugees from countries known for persecution drop about 90 percent in some cases over the last four years.”
The United Nations refugee agency recorded 79.5 million displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019. Since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States led the world in refugee resettlement. Between 2010 and 2019, it accepted 55 percent of all the refugees resettled around the world, the UN High Commission on Refugees reported. But now refugees are more likely to end up in another country—Canada is the global leader—or stay in a camp even longer.
That’s the case for Kree Paw’s aunt, who has spent the last 13 years in a Thai refugee camp. She applied for refugee status but has heard nothing. Her husband died last year, leaving her with three children, Paw said: “She’s still hoping that one day she can come here.”
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Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.