President Donald Trump appears to be ignoring a deadline to establish how many refugees will be allowed into the United States next year, raising uncertainty about the future of the 40-year-old resettlement program that has been dwindling under his administration.
The 1980 Refugee Act requires presidents to issue their determination before Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year. With only hours to go Wednesday, the Trump administration had not scheduled consultations with Congress that are required before setting the annual figure.
There was no immediate comment from the White House, which usually announces the target numbers, or the departments of State or Homeland Security, which are involved in making the determination.
Democratic lawmakers blasted the administration for not meeting its obligation.
Trump’s violation of the 1980 law “will bring our refugee admissions program to a halt, leaving thousands stranded abroad with their lives at risk," New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who's chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who's chairwoman of the Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, said in a statement.
Trump froze this year's admissions in March, citing a need to protect American jobs as fallout from the coronavirus crashed the economy. Advocates fear the government is intentionally delaying its plans for the 2021 fiscal year as a way to eventually eliminate the refugee program. No more refugees can be admitted after Thursday until the president sets the ceiling for the new year.
“We’re concerned the administration may delay the announcement indefinitely,” said Jacinta Ma of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration is committed to the country's history of leading the world in providing a safe place for refugees.
“We continue to be the single greatest contributor to the relief of humanitarian crisis all around the world, and we will continue to do so," Pompeo told reporters in Rome on the sidelines of a conference on religious freedom organized by the U.S. Embassy. “Certainly so long as President Trump is in office, I can promise you this administration is deeply committed to that.”
But advocates say the government's actions do not show that. Since taking office, Trump has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country by more than 80%, reflecting his broader efforts to drastically reduce both legal and illegal immigration.
“Our fear is that this could be the death knell for the refugee resettlement program as we know it,” said Krish Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a federally funded agency charged with resettling refugees in the United States.
The U.S. allowed in just over 10,800 refugees — a little more than half of the 18,000 cap set by Trump for 2020 — before the State Department suspended the program because of the coronavirus.
The 18,000 cap was already the lowest in the history of the program. In addition, the State Department announced last week that it would no longer provide some statistical information on refugee resettlement, sparking more concerns.
Advocates say the Trump administration is dismantling a program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support and has been considered a model for protecting the world’s most vulnerable people.
Scores of resettlement offices have closed because of the drop in federal funding, which is tied to the number of refugees placed in the U.S.
And the damage is reverberating beyond American borders as other countries close their doors to refugees as well.
“We’re talking about tens of millions of desperate families with no place to go and having no hope for protection in the near term,” Vignarajah said.
Bisrat Sibhatu, an Eritrean refugee, does not want to think about the possibility of another year passing without reuniting with his wife.
For the past 2 1/2 years, he has called the caseworker who helped him resettle in Milwaukee every two weeks to inquire about the status of his wife's refugee case.
The answer is always the same — nothing to report.
“My wife is always asking me: ‘Is there news?'" said Sibhatu, who talks to her daily over a messaging app. “It's very tough. How would you feel if you were separated from your husband? It's not easy. I don't know what to say to her."
He said the couple fled Eritrea's authoritarian government and went to neighboring Ethiopia, which hosts more than 170,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers. Between 2017 and 2019, his wife, Ruta, was interviewed, vetted and approved to be admitted to the United States as a refugee. Then everything came to a halt.
Sibhatu, who works as a machine operator at a spa factory, sends her about $500 every month to cover her living expenses in Ethiopia.
“I worry about her, about her life," Sibhatu said, noting Ethiopia's spiraling violence and the pandemic. “But there is nothing we can do."
Mary Flynn, a Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service caseworker, said she wishes she could give him another answer when he calls.
“It's heartbreaking," she said.
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