A Lower Refugee Resettlement Ceiling but Probable Higher Admissions for FY 2019

By Nayla Rush on September 18, 2018

The refugee resettlement ceiling for FY 2019 (which begins October 1) was set at 30,000 by the Trump administration (a drop from this year's 45,000). Unsurprisingly, refugee advocates were quick to denounce such a cut. Emotions aside, let us try to understand the reasoning behind such a determination.

The announced ceiling is guided by two priorities: improving the screening and vetting of refugees and reducing the untenable asylum backlog. These cannot be achieved without decreasing the number of refugee admissions. Keep in mind that ceilings remain targets that can be out of reach – we witnessed this fiscal year a big discrepancy between the ceiling of 45,000 and actual admissions of a little over 20,000). FY 2018 admissions flows were hindered by travel bans and the setting up of enhanced security and integrity measures. With these in place and no expected pauses to the program, the ceiling of 30,000 should be met in FY 2019.


In 2017, the Trump administration started introducing new measures to strengthen the vetting process of refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States in order to maximize the detection of fraud and deception. Improving the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) screening capabilities has also meant admitting fewer refugees. Additional security procedures take time and resources are limited – this explains, in part, the low refugee admissions this fiscal year.

In an event hosted by CIS last month, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna elaborated on the low FY 2018 refugee admissions:

I think that the array of checks that we are now doing on refugees truly, truly are very good. They are truly the maximum that we can do right now within the law and within our capacity to vet refugees. But as a consequence of that, the number of refugees that are going to be coming in this year will be below the ceiling, for sure. And remember, it is a ceiling; it's not a quota... And, you know some of the reasons for that are – well, first of course, the program was suspended for several months during the middle of the fiscal year, so that naturally reduced the number of people that we interviewed or processed into the program. To get back up to speed after the suspensions, it takes a while to be sending refugee officers out again to interview people. But additionally, the checks that we're doing take time, and that's appropriate...I mean, if we're going to be doing them right, they take as long as they take. There is no reason we should speed up the checks, you know, to get people – for the sake of getting people through. [Emphasis added.]

The need to keep strengthening the vetting process for refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States is more than ever pressing. In 2017, FBI Director James Comey sounded the following alarm: 15 percent of all ongoing FBI counter -terrorism investigations (300 of 2,000 cases) involve people admitted to U.S. as refugees. The recent arrest in California of the Iraqi national Omar Ameen – resettled in the United States as a refugee in 2014 – on murder charges and affiliation with a designated foreign terrorist organization (ISIS) is yet another sad example of the need for relentless vigilance. 

Proper vetting implies sufficient and appropriate resources. Refugees are interviewed overseas before coming to the United States. A cadre of USCIS officers called the Refugee Corps was created in 2005 to adjudicate refugee applications. Based in Washington, D.C., they travel to different locations to conduct in-person interviews with applicants overseas. USCIS recruits temporary officers from other USCIS offices to meet workload demands (especially when refugee ceilings increase). According to a Government Accountability Office report, refugee interviews overseas performed by USCIS temporary staff who are less experienced and trained can lead to errors and inefficiencies. We need to make sure these "errors and inefficiencies" do not occur.

Asylum Backlog

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the FY 2019 refugee resettlement ceiling yesterday, said it reflected the "daunting operational reality" of addressing the "humanitarian crisis" of asylum seekers in the United States. In a hearing on refugee admissions last fall, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna stressed on the need to address the asylum backlog for both humanitarian and national security reasons. To that end, refugee officers will be reassigned to asylum cases:

The ceiling [45,000 for FY 2018] also represents the recognition that our nation's humanitarian protection strategy extends beyond traditional refugee resettlement to the significant work being done by USCIS to process asylum claims for hundreds of thousands of claimants who already are in the United States, in our communities. USCIS' current asylum backlog has reached nearly 300,000 cases and continues to grow... Delays in the timely processing of asylum applications are detrimental to legitimate asylum seekers. Furthermore, while a series of security checks are initiated when an asylum application is filed, lingering backlogs can be exploited and used to undermine national security and the integrity of the asylum system. For example, the existence of significant backlogs may attract applicants who submit frivolous asylum applications solely to obtain employment authorization, knowing that they will wait months or years in the backlog before their claim can be heard and denied…USCIS is identifying all available resources to begin to address the growing asylum backlog and prioritize the processing of asylum seekers domestically while discouraging frivolous filings… USCIS will deploy some of its refugee officers to support the asylum program, allowing USCIS to adjudicate thousands of additional asylum applications during the fiscal year.... [Emphasis added.]

Reducing the untenable asylum backlog cannot be achieved without decreasing the number of refugee admissions.

Humanitarian appeal

According to Pompeo, the refugee ceiling "must be considered in the context of the many other forms of protection and assistance offered by the United States" and should not be "sole barometer" to measure the United States humanitarian efforts.

Nazanin Ash, VP Global Policy and Advocacy at International Rescue Committee (IRC), obviously disagreeing with Pompeo, said, "This was an opportunity for the administration to show its humanitarian heart." For reminder, IRC is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that is partly funded by the State Department to act both as a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) overseas and a domestic resettlement agency (or volag). In other words, the same IRC that screens refugees abroad and helps them build a case to submit to U.S. officials for resettlement also gets paid per capita to receive and place them inside the United States. The clear conflict of interest is worthy of note here.

What Ash seems to forget are the following facts:

Asylum seekers who are already present on American soil need our help. Cissna reminded us of this equally humanitarian outreach: "The way we look at it, the asylum work that we do is complementary to the refugee work. These are all vulnerable populations. These are people seeking relief under the same standard."

The United States has and still is the the largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Trump administration pledged $133,795,709 in 2018 (up from the $125,000,000 pledged by the Obama administration in 2017).

Another fact underlined in a 2018 USAID factsheet: "As the world's largest humanitarian donor, the United States has provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, since the start of the crisis in 2011."

Many refugee advocates who are shocked by a lower refugee ceiling this coming fiscal year (and the reduction in admissions of thousands of refugees) seem to be less outraged by the terrible conditions millions of refugees face in their own regions. They are for sure openly dismissive of the Trump administration's efforts to assist millions of vulnerable refugees overseas.

In a previous post I suggested that the ceiling for FY 2019 should remain as is (i.e. 45,000):

The refugee admissions ceiling, in my opinion, should primarily be guided by security considerations. Let government officials whose job is to keep Americans safe help President Trump determine refugee admissions ceilings. FY 2018's 45,000 ceiling seems to be a number they can work with. Why not keep it at that this coming fiscal year?

The president made a different determination. I trust he and his team know (much) better. In the end, what really counts is that ceilings and admission numbers are guided by security considerations and determined with the help of security experts.