Democrats have denounced the White House’s plans to dramatically cut the number of refugees allowed into the US each year as Donald Trump continues to make a crackdown on immigration a hallmark of his presidency.
In a new plan submitted to Congress on Thursday, the Trump administration proposes to accept 18,000 refugees over the next year, a sharp reduction from the current 30,000 limit.
For the first time, the new plan allocates allowances by groups representing “special humanitarian interests to the United States”, replacing a system where allowances are allocated by region.
The proposals give priority to refugees who suffer or fear religious persecution, setting a ceiling of 5,000 on this group, followed by a proposed cap of 4,000 on Iraqis who have assisted US national security interests.
Nationals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the three “Northern Triangle” countries that are the largest source of illegal immigration to the US — are capped at 1,500 under the new plan.
The White House has already capped the number of refugees allowed into the US this year at 30,000, down from 45,000 in 2018. For most of the last 20 years, the US has agreed to take in between 70,000 and 80,000 refugees a year. In the final year of his presidency, Barack Obama capped the number of refugees at 110,000.
Top Democratic lawmakers and humanitarian organisations criticised the plans.
Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, called the reduction an “outrage”.
“At a time when there is a global refugee crisis with a record number of people desperately seeking safety, the number of refugees he has proposed to admit to the United States next year is a stunning, all-time low,” he said.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, described the plans as “morally bankrupt”, while Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, said refugees should be “welcomed with compassion”.
“[They should] not be turned away or have their children taken from them at the border,” said Ms Feinstein, who represents California. “We’re better than that. Sadly, the administration’s low refugee number says otherwise.”
David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said the decision further damaged America’s leadership on protecting vulnerable people. “It has no basis in logic or need, damages America’s interests and tarnishes her values,” he said.
A White House official reportedly said earlier this month that the federal government needed to spend more money to deal with the hundreds of thousands of families that had crossed the US-Mexico border in recent months.
Humanitarian groups have criticised the Trump administration’s broad crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration, arguing not only that the US has a duty to help refugees but that it benefits from them economically.
“While the United States resettles refugees primarily for humanitarian and strategic reasons, refugees also bring considerable economic and business benefits,” said Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees. “Not only do they fill jobs in a tight labour market, they are some of the most dedicated and motivated workers in the US workforce.”
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, said: “How we lead, the example we set, is extremely important globally.”
“If we are seen as stepping up to the challenge, others are likely to do the same,” he said. “If we don’t, an already desperate humanitarian crisis will get worse.
“To shut down refugee admissions frankly would be a repudiation of what America is all about,” he added.