In late October, President Donald Trump lifted a temporary ban on most refugee admissions, a move that should have cleared the way for more people fleeing persecution and violence to come to the United States.
Instead, the number of refugees admitted to the country has plummeted. In the five weeks after the ban was lifted, 40 percent fewer people were allowed in than in the last five weeks it was in place, according to an analysis of State Department data. That plunge has gone almost unnoticed.
As he lifted the ban, Trump instituted new rules for tougher vetting of applicants and also effectively halted, at least for now, the entry of refugees from 11 countries deemed as high risk. The latter move has contributed significantly to the precipitous drop in the number of refugees being admitted.
The data show that the Trump administration’s new restrictions have proven to be a far greater barrier to refugees than even his temporary ban, which was limited in scope by the Supreme Court.
The State Department data show that the kind of refugees being allowed in has also changed. A far smaller portion are Muslim. When the ban was in place they made up a quarter of all refugees. Now that it has been lifted they represent just under 10 percent.
Admissions over five weeks is a limited sample from which to draw broad conclusions, and resettlement numbers often pick up later in the fiscal year, which began in October. But the sharp drop has alarmed refugee advocates.
“They’re pretty much shutting the refugee program down without having to say that’s what they’re doing,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “They’ve gotten better at using bureaucratic methods and national security arguments to achieve nefarious and unjustifiable objectives.”
Trump administration officials say the temporary ban on refugees, and the new security procedures that followed, served to protect Americans from potential terrorist attacks.
Supporters of the administration’s move also argue that the refugee program needed reform and that making it more stringent will ultimately strengthen it.
“The program needed to be tightened up,” said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, who formerly worked in refugee resettlement in Africa. “I’m all for strengthening the vetting, cracking down on the fraud, being really intentional on who we select for this, because I think it protects the program ultimately when we do that.”
A State Department official attributed the drop in refugee admissions to increased vetting, reviews aimed at identifying potential threats, and a smaller annual refugee quota this year of 45,000, the lowest level in decades. “Refugee admissions rarely happen at a steady pace and in many years start out low and increase throughout the year. It would be premature to assess (the 2018 fiscal year’s) pace at this point,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump has made controlling immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, citing both a desire to protect American jobs and national security. During the 2016 presidential campaign he said Syrian refugees could be aligned with Islamist militants and promised “extreme vetting” of applicants.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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