Refugee Admissions to U.S. Off to Slow Start in Fiscal Year 2018

Laura Meckler, Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2018

The U.S. admitted about 5,000 refugees in the first three months of fiscal year 2018, far below similar periods in recent years, as the Trump administration implemented tougher screening and all but halted admissions from parts of the world that generate large numbers of refugees.

Unless the pace of admissions picks up, the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. for the year will fall below the 2018 ceiling of 45,000 that President Donald Trump set last fall. That ceiling is the lowest since the refugee program began in its current incarnation in 1980.

The lower numbers recorded in October, November and December, the first quarter of the fiscal year, reflect a range of Trump administration policies, including a near-total suspension of admissions from 11 countries including Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria. For most of this period, the administration only allowed people from those countries who could show their arrival was in the U.S. “national interest.”

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With admissions from the targeted countries slowed to a trickle, the nation that has seen the most refugees accepted is Bhutan, a tiny Asian country of fewer than a million people. It accounted for 29% of all refugee admissions this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, according to a Wall Street Journal review of State Department data.

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The changes are producing a shift in the religious makeup of incoming refugees. In recent years, those who identify as Muslims have made up more than 40% of all admitted refugees. Muslims comprised 14% of the total during the first three months of this fiscal year. The proportion of Christians and, to a lesser extent, Buddhists and Hindus, has risen, the Journal review found.

Critics say those figures bolster their argument that Mr. Trump’s aim is to ban entry to foreign Muslims, a promise he made when running for president. That argument has been at the core of a series of lawsuits challenging both the refugee policies and a ban on travel to the U.S. by nationals of targeted nations, several of which are still being litigated.

The White House denies that refugee or other immigration policies are driven by religious affiliation and say the goal is to safeguard against possible entry by terrorists.

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But administration officials also acknowledged that policy changes have affected admission rates. Tougher vetting standards announced in October have required officials to rescreen refugee applicants who already had been through the process, slowing things down, said Ms. Higgins, the immigration official. “The premise that we are turning our backs on them is patently wrong.”

The agency also suspended its policy of admitting family members of refugees and said it would prioritize processing of asylum applications over refugee applications.

In addition, for a 90-day period, the administration blocked admission for most refugees from 11 targeted countries. Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria account for the bulk of refugees in this group, but Egypt, Libya, Mali, North Korea, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen were also on the list. Together, those 11 countries have accounted for 40% or more of refugee admissions in recent years.

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At the same time, the government is working to more thoroughly screen refugee applicants. Officials say they are collecting more biographical data about all applicants, such as names of family members and places of employment, and doing more to mine social-media posts.

The vetting process can be particularly challenging, administration officials say, because applicants who have been forced to flee their home countries often don’t have documents that are helpful in confirming identity and other details typically used in screening. In addition, their home countries are often unwilling or unable to cooperate.

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