The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program under the Trump Administration

By Nayla Rush on April 1, 2019

A review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) was set in motion two years ago by the Trump administration following the issuance of Executive Order 13780, "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" on March 6, 2017. USRAP's mission is to "offer resettlement opportunities to persons overseas who are of special humanitarian concern, while protecting national security and combating fraud." Section 6(a) of EO 13780 directed a review of USRAP to determine what new measures were needed to ensure that individuals seeking admission as refugees did not pose a security threat to the United States.

Major changes have been made to the refugee resettlement program since President Trump ordered its review two years ago, including lower admission ceilings, reallocation of resources to address the asylum backlog, and enhanced security vetting measures. But before we elaborate on those changes, here's a brief review of the refugees resettled in the United States under the Trump administration (from Inauguration Day to two years into the review).

Table 1. Refugee Resettlement
Admissions to the U.S. from
January 20, 2017, to March 7, 2019

Total Refugee Admissions 56,216  
Christians 36,471 64.9 percent
Muslims 13,454 23.9 percent

Total Buddhists and Hindus

6.6 percent
Top 10 Nationalities
Dem. Rep. Congo 16,641 15,809 Christians
704 Muslims
Burma 8,050 4,412 Christians
2,254 Muslims
1,001 Buddhists
Ukraine 6,342 6,228 Christians
Bhutan 4,216 1,326 Hindu
1,302 Buddhist
835 Christians
Eritrea 3,268 2,607 Christians
660 Muslims
Iraq 2,507 1,759 Muslims
518 Christians
202 Yezidi
Somalia 2,606 2,596 Muslims
Syria 2,122 2,063 Muslims
Afghanistan 1,524 1,479 Muslims
Iran 1,184 780 Christians
104 Bahai
68 Muslims

Source: Refugee Processing Center Portal.

Lower Ceilings and Admissions

Improving the USRAP screening capabilities to maximize the detection of fraud and deception meant also admitting fewer refugees. Both FY 2018 and FY 2019 ceiling determinations set by President Trump (45,000 and 30,000, respectively) are the lowest ceilings since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. FY 2018's total admissions of 22,491 are also the lowest number since the beginning of the resettlement program. Total yearly admissions have at times been lower than others (for instance, following 9/11, admissions fell to 27,131 in FY 2002 and 28,403 in FY 2003 — both years had a 70,000 ceiling), but FY 2018 is an all-time low. Halfway through FY 2019, admissions to date (October 1, 2018 to March 28, 2019) totaled 12,099 resettled refugees. Let's not forget that ceilings remain targets that can be out of reach.

Despite lower admissions, the U.S. resettled more refugees than any other nation in both 2017 and 2018, remaining the top country for refugee resettlement.

Reallocation of Resources to Address the Asylum Backlog

In FY 2017 and 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shifted an important number of its refugee officers to processing affirmative asylum applications and conducting credible fear and reasonable fear screenings. This reduced the number of refugee interviews abroad, which are a determining phase of the resettlement program.

Furthermore, DHS took additional measures to modernize its asylum case management system by returning to "last in, first out" scheduling. As explained in the "Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2019 Report to Congress":

This system prioritizes the most recent applications, allowing DHS to place individuals found ineligible for asylum into removal proceedings well before six months have passed, which minimizes the incentive to file frivolous or fraudulent asylum applications to obtain work permission.

These new measures led to a significant decrease in affirmative asylum filings (down 30 percent since January 2018). For the first time in years, the number of pending affirmative asylum cases leveled off.

Enhanced Security Vetting Measures

Under the Trump administration, agencies involved in USRAP have instituted new vetting procedures to close security gaps and take a more risk-based approach to refugee admissions. Improved security procedures for refugees entering the United States include, but are not limited to, "increased data collection to more thoroughly investigate applicants, better information sharing between agencies to identify threat actors, and new training procedures to strengthen screener ability to detect fraud and deception."

For the application process, increased data collection and enhanced identity management are intended to make it harder for applicants to use deceptive tactics to come to the United States. One important step, for example, is "ensuring that the vetting procedures for certain qualified refugee family members be more closely aligned with those of principal refugees and other types of qualifying family members traveling with refugees." Expanded information sharing between agencies is being implemented. State and USCIS are exchanging more in-depth information, which allows interviewing officers to develop more tailored lines of questioning.

For the interview and adjudication process, new guidance and training on how to assess the credibility and admissibility of refugee applicants is being provided by USCIS to refugee adjudicators. Trained USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) officers are deployed to certain refugee processing locations overseas to assist interviewing officers and help identify potential fraud and other security concerns. Officers are also allowed sufficient time during interviews to explore potential national security threats as well as credibility issues.

Further security enhancements to USRAP include:

  1. [A]dditional specialized screening for refugee applicants who are nationals of certain high-risk countries;
  2. [A]dministering USRAP in a more risk-based manner when considering overall refugee admissions, regional allocations, and the groups of applicants considered for resettlement; and
  3. [P]eriodic interagency review of the selection criteria and the countries whose nationals require additional specialized screening.


The Trump administration has been clear from the beginning about how best to help refugees; it is not through expanded resettlement, but through support to refugees "close to their homes to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home." Nonetheless, the United States remains the number one resettlement country and one of the biggest donors to the United Nations refugee agency (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR). In fiscal year 2018 alone, the U.S. contribution to UNHCR "reached a historic high of nearly $1.6 billion to support UNHCR's response to historic levels of displacement and humanitarian need."

The security of the American people has always been the top priority of the Trump administration; hence, the introduction of new measures to strengthen the vetting process of refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States. Another major concern of this administration is addressing the "humanitarian crisis" of asylum seekers already present on American soil. Reducing the untenable asylum backlog (over 300,000 applicants) is needed for both humanitarian and national security reasons. The United States' humanitarian efforts — on top of resettling thousands of refugees and assisting millions close to their homes — include providing asylum to thousands of asylum-seekers who are already in the United States. Delays in the processing of asylum applications are detrimental to legitimate asylum seekers who are seeking relief. Furthermore, lingering backlogs can be used to undermine national security and the integrity of the asylum system. Applicants can be tempted to apply for asylum solely to obtain employment authorization, knowing very well that their claim might take years before being accepted or rejected.

Bottom line, the United States under the Trump administration is collecting more data on refugee applicants, and more applicants are facing higher levels of security screening. Screening has never been as thorough. The United States still leads the humanitarian appeal to help refugees and asylum seekers abroad and on her soil while keeping Americans as safe as possible.

Topics: Refugees