Trump’s Historically Low Refugee Ceiling Draws Broad Criticism—and Worries

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Robin Gurung waited 20 years for a country to accept him, to be allowed the dignity to earn a living and build a future for his family.

With the Trump administration’s September 26th announcement that it would drop the ceiling for refugee resettlement to a historic low of 18,000 for the upcoming fiscal year (down from an already record low of 30,000), Gurung worries he is witnessing the deterioration of the system that allowed him to “chase his dreams” in the United States. 

The Bhutanese refugee is joined in his concerns by a diverse coalition of Republicans, Democrats, religious leaders, corporations, and humanitarian aid organizations who have all denounced the policy as inhumane, detrimental to the economy, and counter to U.S. security interests and values. 

The United States has historically been one of the most welcoming countries in the world for refugees, with the annual ceiling hovering around 95,000 since the institution of the current system in 1980.

The ceiling was 110,000 in fiscal year 2016, and roughly 85,000 refugees—the highest figure since 2000, but still less than half of the more than 200,000 refugees admitted at the program’s height—were resettled in the United States. Since taking office, President Donald Trump has drastically lowered U.S. resettlement. In fiscal year 2018, 22,491 refugees were admitted, the lowest total since 1980.

Senior administration officials say they look at U.S. humanitarian aid holistically, pointing to $8 billion spent annually overseas. Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said agency resources are shifting to the record backlog in pending asylum cases, more than 500,000. Migrants fleeing violence, persecution, and other threats can only apply for asylum once they have arrived in a receiving country, while refugees are admitted after applying for entry from abroad.  

“[T]his year’s refugee ceiling determination recognizes both the realities of our border crisis … and the reality of our resource situation in the federal government,” a senior administration official said during a White House press briefing on the decision.

But an August letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from a bipartisan collection of 18 U.S. Senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), rejected that argument. 

“While we share the concern about the humanitarian crisis at the Southern Border, we disagree that eliminating refugee admittance would somehow alleviate the flow,” the legislators wrote. “On the contrary, the United States has the ability to use refugee admittance to process individuals and families from Northern Triangle countries, which could allow for a decrease in asylum-seekers, especially those with children, at the border.”

Now, some lawmakers are considering limiting executive authority on the issue. At least a dozen U.S. Senators co-sponsored the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement (GRACE) Act, a law that would set an annual refugee resettlement floor of 95,000.

The lowering of the ceiling comes at a time when global refugee figures are only expected to climb due to conflict as well as climate change. According to the United Nations refugee agency, there are 71 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, including 26 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers.

The drastic fall in refugee admissions means resettlement agencies that receive per-person funding are closing underused offices and culling programs as they struggle to stay afloat. Meanwhile, businesses and communities that have come to rely on infusions of refugees for growth are concerned about long-term impacts. 

“In the United States, the labor market is so tight right now that refugees are helping to fill that gap in many areas,” said Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a coalition of more than 130 companies supporting refugee integration and employment founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya in early 2016.

“Refugees are often resettled in places where they are looking for talent. As Chobani grew in upstate New York there were not enough people to work in the factories. We’re talking about places that have lost population in the last decade.” 

A Vulnerable, Motivated Workforce 

As a member of the southern Bhutanese group known as Lhotshampas, Gurung was expelled by his birth country and unwanted by the nation closest to his ethnic roots. 

“We all dreamt of going back to our country,” he said of his time in a Nepalese refugee camp.  “… Bilateral talks went on for 15 years, but Bhutan was not willing to accept that we were true citizens. The Lhotshampas speak the same language as Nepal, and the culture is basically the Nepali culture, but Nepal was also not willing to accept us.”

Still, even when the United States started resettling Bhutanese refugees in 2007, Gurung stayed in the camp while relatives escaped overseas, clinging to the hope of returning to Bhutan. He finally applied for resettlement in 2012, after two decades—his entire youth—was squandered in the camp. He arrived in Oakland, where he had family, and was welcomed by one of a handful of resettlement agencies in the Bay Area, connected with employers and English classes.

Research indicates refugees, given a little assistance, tend to be productive workers who stay on the job longer than their counterparts. A 2017 Notre Dame University study estimated within eight years of arrival, adult refugees begin paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and by the time the average adult refugees have lived in the United States for 20 years they have paid $21,000 more in taxes than they received in government benefits. Additionally, a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute found the turnover rate for refugee employees was between a fifth and two thirds lower than for employees overall.

“In the camp you are like a beggar because you depend on others all the time, and it’s not human nature to feel good about that,” Gurung said. “When I came here and got my first job at a grocery store it felt good to work hard and make money to help my family, to pay for my own care. In the camp you were not allowed to work. In this country, we finally had the opportunity to become a human being. It’s a very emotional thing.”

In May 2019, Catholic Charities closed the Oakland chapter of its national network of refugee resettlement programs that helped Gurung integrate. Much of the country’s resettlement system is made up of a patchwork of agencies, and as refugees numbers have dropped so has funding. 

Karen Ferguson, executive director of the International Refugee Committee offices in Northern California, said resettlement agencies like IRC are getting creative and doing what they can to find new funding sources, diversify offerings, and create new partnerships to maintain refugee services. 

“It’s a delicate machine that allows for refugee admission, because we do care a lot that people be brought over in a safe way and that they be highly vetted before they come,” she said. “If you start interrupting one part of that system the whole thing slows to a grind.”

Today, Gurung speaks English fluently and runs his own yoga and Reki studio in Oakland. 

“This is just devastating for my community,” he said. “Bhutanese refugees have one of the highest suicide rates, and one reason is because of the lack of a support sysytem. The people who can get help settling in—support with the language, finding a place to stay—are so much better off. It is going to be very hard to reorganize this network once it’s been disrupted. You’re working with a community that requires some trust building, and that’s difficult and takes time.”

Threat to U.S. Safety and Prosperity

As word spread this summer that the Trump administration was considering a historically low refugee ceiling, numerous organizations and groups publicly lobbied for a reversal. 

“Stepping forward for America does not mean taking one million refugees or anything like it … we are pushing here for a return to normal, which is roughly 95,000 refugees a year,” Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon said in a National Immigration Forum press call. “ … By showing a welcome we cause others to do the same. If we pull that mat up, so will others and a bad situation becomes worse.”

Crocker emphasized that refugees, who often wait years if not decades for resettlement, are some of the most highly vetted immigrants.

“There is no class of applicants to the United States that is more thoroughly screened than refugees are, none.” he said. “ … By taking steps that could lead to the deconstruction of the entire resettlement effort in this country … that is not going to make us any safer. The contrary will be true.”

As the administration has stepped back, corporations have lined up to offer more support for refugees inside the United States and abroad. Through the Tent Partnership, WeWork and Starbucks have both augmented their refugee hiring programs. Recently, more than 20 companies working with Tent including Airbnb pledged support for Venezuelan refugees. 

“The U.S. refugee resettlement infrastructure is frankly the envy of the world,” Maltz said. “I don’t think any country does a better job of integrating people quickly and getting them jobs. That infrastructure is now under acute stress, and we’re seeing a lot of local offices having to close because of funding gaps. … There are long-term concerns that building that infrastructure back up will be extremely difficult.”

At the East Bay Refugee and Immigrant Forum, a coalition of agencies serving Oakland and surrounding areas, coordinator Sean Kirkpatrick said he has witnessed numerous small cuts to refugee resources in the last few years, which have started to amount to significant changes. 

“These resources are easy to lose and hard to recover,” he said. “It’s really insidious how the administration is cutting into and dismantling the system. … Refugee stories are powerful. They are hardworking when they arrive, not burdens. They are net adders to the economy and enrich us culturally.”

Gurung took the oath as a U.S. citizen in August and recently got engaged, opportunities he worries others will no longer enjoy. 

“It was the first time in my life that I got to become a citizen of a country,” he said. “I wasn’t accepted in Bhutan, my birthplace, or even Nepal, where my forefathers came from, but in this new land I was given the opportunity to become a citizen. That means so much to the generation after me.”

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