U.S. officials are weighing whether to postpone or further cut refugee admissions in the coming year amid legal fights over President Donald Trump's refugee policy and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a senior official said.
The possible postponement - one of several options under discussion - would mean some or all refugee admissions could be frozen until a legal challenge to a 2019 Trump order on refugees is resolved "with some greater degree of finality," the official told Reuters.
It is not clear when that lawsuit may be resolved, especially if the case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process that could take months or even longer.
The president typically sets yearly refugee levels around the beginning of each fiscal year and the Trump administration has not yet announced its plans for fiscal 2021, which begins on Oct. 1.
The refugee cap was cut to 18,000 this year, the lowest level since the modern-day program began in 1980. So far, roughly half that many refugees have been let in as increased vetting and the coronavirus pandemic have slowed arrivals.
The senior official said that even if 2021 admissions are not delayed, next year's cap could be cut below current levels.
"The arc of this administration's refugee policy is going to continue," said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing deliberations.
Trump and his top officials have said refugees could pose threats to national security and that resettlement should take place closer to countries of origin. The administration also contends that refugee resettlement can be costly for local communities, although refugee backers reject those arguments.
The possible moves remain under discussion and no final decision has been reached, the official stressed.
Democrat challenger Joe Biden has pledged to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 per year if he defeats Trump in November. However, Biden has not said how quickly he would raise the cap and advocates say the program could take years to recover after Trump-era reductions.
If he wins, Biden could seek to raise the cap soon after taking office, just as Trump moved to halve refugee admissions in early 2017. But refugee groups say that restoring the pipeline of travel-ready refugees and rebuilding the organizations that receive them in the United States will take months or years as refugees will need to undergo renewed security and medical checks and shuttered resettlement offices will need to reopen.
Trump, who is seeking another four-year term on Nov. 3, has made his immigration crackdown a focus of the presidency and 2020 campaign.
In addition to greatly reducing refugee admissions to the United States, Trump also issued an executive order in September 2019 that required state and local elected officials to consent to receive refugees, saying it would better ensure refugees were sent to areas with adequate resources to receive them.
In January, a Maryland-based U.S. district judge blocked the order from taking effect, prompting Trump administration officials to consider a possible "deferral" of refugee admissions until the court case is resolved, the senior official said.
The administration's refugee cap discussions involve officials from the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, and have been coordinated by the White House National Security Council, according to the senior official, who declined to provide the names of those involved.
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