Will the U.S. Allow in Any Refugees Next Year?

Unless the president takes action, the cap will fall to zero today due to an arbitrary and cruel refugee system.


Each fall, at the direction of the Refugee Act of 1980, the president issues a determination setting a cap on the number of refugees who may be admitted to the United States for the next fiscal year. The first year, the cap was 231,700, though 207,116 refugees were actually admitted. The limit plunged dramatically over the next three years, rose again during George H.W. Bush's administration, and hovered between 70,000 and 91,000 in the two decades between 1996 and when President Donald Trump took office. The Obama administration's cap for 2017 was 110,000, but Trump lowered it to 50,000. For 2018, he dropped it to 45,000, then 30,000 the next year. The 2020 cap was just 18,000, and only half that number have been admitted, thanks in part to the administration's pandemic immigration bans. For fiscal year 2021, will any refugees be admitted to America at all?

That's an open question, because the deadline for Trump to issue his order is today, and an order has yet to appear. It could well arrive by midnight—last year's cap was a last-minute affair—but it also may not arrive at all. Without a presidential determination, the cap will default to zero (a few special cases aside).

This is an arbitrary and cruel system both for refugees themselves and for the American refugee resettlement organizations trying to serve them. Trump should reverse his course toward eliminating refugee admissions altogether, setting the 2021 ceiling at 95,000, as requested by resettlement agencies this year and last year. More importantly, the entire approach to refugee admissions caps should be reformed so lives and organizational livelihoods no longer hang in the balance of presidential whim.

There are around 26 million refugees worldwide, people who, per the definition in that 1980 law, are "unable or unwilling to return to [their] country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group." More than 100,000 are refugees already in the State Department's backlog, many of them cleared for resettlement in the United States after extensive vetting (see some firsthand accounts of the multi-year admission process here) and hoping to reunite with family members already living here. If approved to travel here, they'd work with one of nine refugee resettlement agencies and their smaller partners, organizations with a local presence in the communities refugees will newly call home.

Instead, thanks to the administration's pettiness and procrastination, all of this is in limbo. The risk here is not merely the short-term harm to the specific refugees awaiting admission, though certainly that is considerable. Many refugee camps are miserable places to live—muddy and overcrowded, rife with communicable illness (even before COVID-19), and sorely lacking the stability children, who are nearly half of the refugee population worldwide, need to learn and grow as they ought.

But there's a long-term risk here, too, a way in which this administration's caps could hurt refugees for decades after Trump has left the White House: The paucity of admissions is strangling resettlement and support groups. If the cap is very low again for 2021, it "very well could be the last, final blow to [Church World Service, one of the nine big agencies], as we've been treading water the last few years," Jen Smyers, the group's director of policy and advocacy for its immigration and refugee program, told CNN this week. "If there's a whole month without resettlement, that alone is really detrimental to the program." These organizations simply can't stay afloat forever if Washington won't let them do their work, and if they shut down entirely, the loss of institutional infrastructure and knowledge will not easily be replicated once the cap is raised again.

The government will always be involved in refugee admissions because it controls the border, but surely this process of determining an annual ceiling could be less erratic and more humane than the presidential determination system we have now. Instead of leaving the cap to executive discretion, the State Department could calculate it based on the nine agencies' self-reported resettlement capacity. If each can handle an average of 20,000 refugees in one year, for example, set the cap at 180,000. If the average is 15,000 or 25,000 each the next year, lower or raise the total accordingly. These agencies will know their own business better than the president or any other federal bureaucrat.

This system, or something like it, would create far more predictability for the government, these charitable organizations, and the vulnerable people they seek to aid. There'd be no question of the determination deadline being met, as there is now, because it would be in the agencies' interest to provide a prompt and accurate capacity report to maintain their relationship with the State Department.

As the process stands, the uncertainty foisted upon refugees and the Americans who want to support them is unacceptable and unnecessary. It isn't helping Americans, and it's actively hurting some of the world's most vulnerable people—people who, in many cases, are refugees in whole or part because of destructive U.S. foreign policy. The least we can do is offer them a safe place to rebuild the lives our government helped destroy.

UPDATE: One hour before the end of the fiscal year, the Trump administration set the refugee admissions cap for 2021 to 15,000, a historic low. See a full report on the State Department note to Congress about the cap at CNN.

NEXT: As 'Dumpster Fire' Debate Rages, Jorgensen Quietly Presents an Alternative

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  1. Oh, come on! Refugees aren’t human beings! Stop thinking of them as such!

    TRUMP 2020!

    1. We have to protect the elderly!

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    2. “Open Borders! (but closed restaurants and parks, lol” – t. Sarcasmic.

      1. Whatever gave you the impression that I support lockdowns?

        1. Your daily comments for the last 6 months explicitly stating that you support the lockdowns and griefing, flaming, and namecalling anyone who opposes them.

    3. So, Sarcasmic, you are implying that any human being should be able to move to the US freely.

      1. Nobody cares what I think.

        1. True.

        2. sarcasmic is John Stewart, only drunk, not funny, and missing about 38 IQ points.

    4. Why would anyone want to come here? We’re a hellhole of racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, you name it. We’re doing the world a favor by not forcing them to leave their beautiful, unspoiled utopias to come to here.

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  2. The number should be zero.

  3. Yes, if Biden is elected expect many more future democrat voters to be brought over here. It worked well for Tammany Hall, it works today with Somalis.

    If Trump is elected, then no.

    1. Don’t like the old electorate? Import a new one.
      Drives down the gardener and nanny costs too.

    2. Except that many refugees tend to be very religious and socially conservative. So they will not help the dems if they continue down their woke/socialist path…

      1. Oh come on! You didn’t get the memo? Every single immigrant, without exception, is only here to get welfare and vote for Democrats! Every! Single! One!

        1. Naturalized citizens vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Without naturalized citizens, Democrats would likely lose many elections, and Hillary wouldn’t have won the popular vote.

          It’s clear Democrats have a strong incentive to bring in large numbers of foreigners and giving them citizenship in an attempt to gain an advantage at the polls.

          1. Converse: It’s clear Republicans have a strong incentive to ban immigration in an attempt to gain an advantage at the polls.

            Pretty sad when right and wrong have left the building, and all that matters is politics.

            1. There are no two equivalent sides to this.

              Limiting immigration in order to maintain the status quo is not “an attempt to gain an advantage at the polls”, it simply leaves decision making where it should be, the current body politic.

              Bringing in foreigners and naturalizing them for the purpose of gaining political power is morally wrong and corrupt. Worse yet, it’s self-reinforcing, meaning that the growing support for immigration is the result of this corrupt process going on for decades.

              Yes, pretty sad “when right and wrong have left the building”, and for Democrats it’s all about gaining power at any cost.

              1. And for Republicans it’s all about keeping power at any cost.

                1. No, not “at any cost”; Republicans are using lawful and democratic means to stay in power, namely limiting immigration.

                  Democrats are using corrupt means to gain power, namely the attempted import of millions of foreigners and turning them into voters. Democrats have even violated the law to make this happen, over and over again, foremost Obama.

                  1. So when the Democrats use the law for their advantage it’s unlawful, but then the Republicans do the same thing it’s lawful?

                    1. You were discussing the question of (moral) right vs wrong, not legality.

                      It is morally wrong to import large numbers of foreigners into a democracy and thereby gain power and override the will of the people.

                      It is morally right to limit immigration to a country unless an overwhelming majority of citizens of that country favor more immigration, something Americans have never done.

                      Legality has nothing to do with it. But in particular the Obama administration has actually tolerated and encouraged illegal conduct in order to achieve their immoral objective. The people never voted on any of these policies, and a majority of Americans never voted for Obama.

                    2. So when the Democrats use the law for their advantage it’s unlawful, but then the Republicans do the same thing it’s lawful?

                      Yes, executive orders undermining laws duly passed by congress are illegal. Multiple federal judges even said so. Laws duly passed by congress are not illegal. By definition. Get it now, or would an episode of Magic School Bus help?

      2. (Laughs in Burmese and Somali.)

        The good people at Pew have put together an article describing the distribution of refugees in the US since this Federal Refugee program started in 1980. See,

        Burma, Iraq, Somalia, and Bhutan were the origin countries for over half of the total refugees from 2002 to 2017. I am pressing X for Doubt on the conservative bona fides for this pool.

        Total numbers since 1980 are about 3 million people, more than any other country. I think we’re paid up if we want to take a year off because of the WuFlu, and 2020 being such a shit year.

        For 2019, the big winner was the DR Congo.

      3. If that were true Somali Muslims would have stoned Omar instead of voting for her.

  4. Even before the administration’s announcement, refugee resettlement in the U.S. had dropped to historic lows during Donald Trump’s presidency, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of State Department data. As a result, the U.S. is no longer the world’s top country for refugee admissions. It had previously led the world on this measure for decades, admitting more refugees each year than all other countries combined.
    Coronavirus Disease (COVID 19) Guidelines according to WHO.

    1. True, but that’s EXTREMELY misleading.

      Yes, refugees were at a historic low, but asylum applications, especially among unaccompanied minors were at historic highs.

      People often use “refugee” or “asylee” interchangeably, but from a legal standpoint they are two different things. A refugee is settled through the UN refugee program. An asylum seeker simply shows up at the border and applies for asylum. If a country is already taking in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers (particularly during a pandemic), and the processing centers are crowded as all get out, then it makes sense to spread the wealth and let those refugees go elsewhere. The US isn’t the only country in the world. There are hundreds of other nations that take very few of either group.

      1. Don’t you get it though, they have a right to be here and we have an obligation to let them come.

        Are you seriously suggesting they could go to Canada instead? Gross.

      2. I was wondering whether there were other categories of that type of compassion case immigration, that were being deliberately elided by the article. Thanks, John.

        Guessing many of the Lutheran/Catholic Charities cases of making Mogadishu Great Again in Minnesota, fall within this category ignored by the article. Shocking.

        I will guarantee though that, should there be another Presidential Debate—I think there won’t be—immigration will absolutely be one of the main topics for hammering Trump. That Telemundo 66-34 ‘Trump did better’ poll last night, could not have been happy making for the Democrats.

        Per exit polling and later polling of the 2016 Presidential Electorate, Hillary got 2 out of every 3 Hispanic votes cast. If that Telemundo poll is anywhere close to accurate, concerning Hispanics’ actual voting this Election, Biden is toast if nothing changes.

  5. Does it even matter? A million plus will try to cross the border, ignore all pretense of being refugees, then demand the right to stay and be catered to.

  6. The 2020 cap was just 18,000, and only half that number have been admitted, thanks in part to the administration’s pandemic immigration bans.

    What was even the point of this column at a time when parks and churches are closed, airports are empty and people eat out in little plastic bubbles?

  7. The US should take in any refugees who flee political persecution or war in neighboring countries, i.e., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, the UK, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands.

      1. Why is it “funny”? That’s the only obligation we have under international law.

        1. Excuse the fuck out of me for not being a lawyer.

          I thought it was funny because I can’t imagine there being refugees from those places. Oh wait, you pointed out the distinction between refugee and asylee, was that you? Whatever. I’m not a lawyer. I thought it was funny because those places aren’t full of violence that people want to flee, so I found you saying “Hey, we’ll accept anyone from places nobody is trying to flee” as a joke. I didn’t realize you were serious.

          1. Of course I’m serious. It is a fundamental principle of refugee and asylum law that people should seek, and be given, refuge close to home.

            Shipping refugees and asylum seekers half way around the world into a different culture is not just ineffective, it is wrong and bad foreign policy.

            The US is lucky in that there are no conflicts in neighboring countries. That means that the US should receive almost no refugees or asylum seekers.

            1. “The US is lucky in that there are no conflicts in neighboring countries.”

              Luck has very little to do with it, our foreign policy gets the credit. If we’re willing to go halfway around the world and bomb the shit out of people because we perceive them as a threat to America, imagine what we’d do in reaction to a similar conflict in Mexico or South America.

              Not that being a gun wielding maniac is a good thing overall, but if you had a gun wielding maniac as a neighbor it would probably color your interactions with him.

  8. I’m leaning more and more to feeling the same way about refugees as I do about states and companies that need bailouts. It’s not my fault you turned your world into a flaming pile of shit (literally in California). Why should I help you. To quote the great philosopher Mr. Meseeks “your failures are your own old man!”

    1. In Omar’s case, that’s literally the case: her family were government officials in the socialist government. When Somalis rebelled against socialism, she and her family had to leave and come to the US. Now she’s trying to bring that sh*t into US politics.

      Kamala Harris is just as bad. Her mother was a member of a privileged upper class minority where she came from, promptly joined the privileged upper classes in the US, and now she wants to lecture us on privilege.

      1. To be fair, Kamala is an expert on the subject.

  9. Unless the president takes action, the cap will fall to zero today due to an arbitrary and cruel refugee system.

    Ain’t no real big secret, all the same somehow we get around it.

    1. Don’t worry. Roberts is ruling tomorrow on Trump’s inaction on this issue. He is likely to rule it unconstitutional.

  10. I can’t get a fountain soda at the convenience store, or go to a bar, or watch a baseball game in person, all allegedly due to CoVid.

    Why are we advocating importing people into the country during a (supposed) global pandemic?

  11. What are the caps all the surrounding nations have in place?

  12. Let them come, and require the refugee organizations to provide for their welfare, lodging, education, clothing, and food. If they want them here, they should be responsible for them. I’m sure the rich Liberals who want to help these refugees will provide the money.

  13. ” Instead of leaving the cap to executive discretion, the State Department could calculate it based on the nine agencies’ self-reported resettlement capacity. ”
    So create an economic incentive for the agencies to continually increase capacity? No thanks

  14. Are there no other goddamn countries in the world for these people to go to?

  15. Clearly, Democrats and Reason should be happy about this. We are keeping refugees safe from the awful racist white folks Covid infection massacre which Trump started in the US. They are much safer in Spain or North Africa than here. Naughty Trump!

  16. Thought provoking. For starters, there are the absolutely abysmal, deplorable, heinous, unforgivable actions of the US government in undermining elected governments in Central America. See Walter La Feber, Inevitable Revolutions; the Dulles brothers and United Fruit; etc. Then there are the ambivalent US actions on border security, including lack of entry-exit control, support6ed by businesses seeking cheap labor, on the one hand, and the party of the left seeking to establish a patron client state on the other. There are the “trade agreements” that benefit only the elite. NAFTA comes to mind.
    In some ways, we have not progressed much in the last 2000 years.

    1. You are correct that there is no changes in 2000 years
      The Roman Empire was destroyed after a plague reduce its manpower and they were unable to prevent unrestricted immigration by barbarians.
      The Goths forced their way across the Rhine, and were horribly abused by local Roman officials. Including being forced to sell their children into slavery in exchange for being given dog meat to eat.
      This of course led to the Gothic wars and the death of the emperor at the battle of Adrianapole at the hands of the Goths.
      The Goths were given land in exchange for service in the Roman army as Gothic units.
      This led directly to the Goths taking over and converting north Italy into the kingdom of the Goths.
      Unrestricted immigration of peoples who won’t assimilate into the dominant culture can only lead to disaster

    2. Sure there are the US actions in Central America. But you forget to also mention the billions of development aid poured in to the region as well.

  17. The US welcomes legally vetted immigrants into the country, there is never a lack of those seeking to enter the country, all that racist BS that comes form the left just does not hold sway, the melting pot still uses the ingredients to make Americans become cohesive and unified….Immigration is changing but since PP is inclined to murder the unborn these legal immigrants are America’s best hope to keep a population and work force that can help the nation thrive into the future……

  18. ” the presidential determination system we have now. Instead of leaving the cap to executive discretion,”

    Get Cogress to change the law. It’s that simple. Congress deferred this decision to the executive and it’s being made by the executive. Plenty of crap that has happened under Trump happens because Trump’s team looks at the rules laid out by Congress and then plays by the rules.


    8 U.S. Code § 1182

    (f) Suspension of entry or imposition of restrictions by President

    Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

    That’s the words in the law that Congress passed.

  19. And how many of all those you so fervently want to admit will be staying in your guest room, Ms. Kristian?

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

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