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Presidential Intent, But No Declaration: What Now for U.S. Refugee Admissions?

Oct 08, 2020

Blog Post

Sharon Samber, HIAS.org

A HIAS representative (L) assists newly arrived refugees at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, March 23, 2017.

(Bill Swersey/HIAS)

While the Trump administration said last week that it intends to lower the refugee admissions ceiling to 15,000 for fiscal year 2021, the announcement raised more questions than it answered.

The 15,000-person cap was included in the administration’s Report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions, but the actual document that makes the cap official — called the Presidential Determination, or PD — has not been signed. That means refugees cannot yet arrive. The short-term moratorium on refugee arrivals has been extended through October 26th, though if the PD can be signed before then, they may be able to resume earlier. 

The administration has also not consulted with Congress on the refugee admissions goal, which must happen before the PD can be signed and enacted. All of this means that refugees approved for resettlement in the United States have no idea what might happen.

“We are very concerned about the situation right now for refugees waiting to come to the U.S.,” said Karen Monken, HIAS’ director of pre-arrival and initial resettlement. “We need clear information to help our clients and their families understand the impact on their cases, and to let our affiliate agencies plan for arrivals in the new fiscal year.”

Limiting the PD to just 15,000 people was also disturbing for refugee advocacy organizations. Historically, the annual refugee admissions ceiling has averaged 95,000 per year. This year, according to the U.N Refugee Agency, there are 26 million refugees worldwide, with more than 1.4 million individuals in need of immediate resettlement.

This year 540 state and local elected officials, more than 600 faith leaders and faith-based groups, and 183 organizations affirmed their support for refugees, and asked for a resettlement goal of 95,000. 

“It is a sad moment when our country shows such weakness when it should be leading,” said HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield at the time of the announcement. “The administration’s decision to set a record low number of refugees at a time of record high needs shows how far we have fallen.”

The lack of clarity in the Report to Congress raises many other questions, such as whether UNHCR will be able to refer cases to the U.S. Without the PD, refugees are in uncertain and unsafe conditions and families are kept wondering.