Catholic leaders and organizations have condemned an announcement by the Trump administration that it intends to cap the number of refugees admitted to the United States at 18,000 for the 2020 financial year.
The 18,000 figure will not include people who are claiming asylum. A person seeking asylum does so after arriving at a port of entry. A refugee is processed before arriving in the United States.
The new proposed figure marks a 40% drop from the previous year’s ceiling of 30,000.
In a phone call with journalists, a senior administration official explained that the new refugee policy would prioritize refugees by the basis for their application over region of origin. The administration said that the large backlog in asylum cases is part of the reasoning behind the reduced number of refugees. There are nearly 400,000 asylum cases currently being processed by the U.S. government.
“First, we're prioritizing those who have been persecuted for their religious beliefs,” said the official, explaining that 5,000 places would be reserved for this category.
“The U.S. is committed to advancing religious freedom internationally, including the protection of religious groups across the globe.”
An additional 4,000 spaces will be reserved for Iraqis who assisted the United States, and an additional 1,500 places will be reserved for Honduran, Guatemalan, and El Salvadoran nationals who do not otherwise qualify for asylum.
The remaining 7,500 spots will go to eligible claimants not otherwise covered by these categories.
A statement released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the policy shift.
“We are currently in the midst of the world’s greatest forced displacement crisis on record, and for our nation, which leads by example, to lower the number of refugee admissions for those who are in need is unacceptable,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Migration.
“Refugees are among the most vulnerable people, fleeing war, religious persecution, and extreme targeted violence. Turning a blind eye to those in need with such callous disregard for human life would go against the values of our nation and fail to meet the standards that make our society great,” added Vasquez.
Vasquez also voiced concerns about a proposed executive order that would allow cities and states to turn away refugees.
“We fear the collateral negative consequences, especially for refugees and their families, of creating a confusing patchwork across America of some jurisdictions where refugees are welcomed and others where they are not.”
Vasquez urged President Trump and Congress to “work together to restore U.S. refugee resettlement to at normal, historical levels.”
Catholic Charities USA said Sept. 27 that the organization “strongly opposes yesterday’s action by the Administration to historically reduce the number of refugees welcomed into the United States, a record low since the program began in 1980.”
“We call upon the Administration to consider the refugee resettlement program’s mission to provide protection to those in need for humanitarian reasons. The program should return to consistent refugee numbers rather than focus primarily on its use for partisan-based purposes,” Catholic Charities said.
Catholic Relief Services, which exercises humanitarian ministry around the world, was similarly opposed to the proposed cap.
“The world depends on the United States taking in its share of the 26 million vulnerable refugees,” said CRS executive vice president for Mission and Mobilization Bill O’Keefe in a statement.
“How can we ask a country like Uganda, a developing country smaller than Wyoming, to take in a million South Sudanese refugees unless we step up and take in at least 95,000 of the most vulnerable?
“Fundamentally, we are talking about other human beings – children and families – seeking safety and a decent life. Admitting refugees reflects the values on which this nation was built, the teaching of Christianity and other faiths, and basic human decency,” he added.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting Director Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Friday that persecuted Christians seeking refugee status in the U.S. will be turned back if they seek to bypass the refugee cap by seeking asylum at the border.
"I take issue with how you ask your alleged question," Cuccinelli said, before clarifying that the administration will "turn them back" if persecuted Christians attempted to walk across a national border in order to claim asylum in the counry.
The United States’ refugee ceiling remained relatively stable from the fiscal years 2000-2016, at around 70,000 annually. In his last year in office, President Barack Obama raised the ceiling to 110,000 for the fiscal year 2017.
President Trump moved to limit the number of refugees who were admitted to the United States as one of his first acts in office. The United States averaged about 67,000 new refugee admissions each year until Trump took office, and that number has since been repeatedly lowered.