The 2020 federal fiscal year begins October 1, marking the deadline for Donald Trump’s presidential determination on the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States for resettlement. Virginia has already taken a hit from previous reductions by Trump, with Richmond’s Church World Service—one of nine State Department-designated resettlement agencies in the U.S.—announcing that it will close even before Trump makes his determination public.
“We’re turning our backs on a core American value,” says Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the Charlottesville International Rescue Committee. She cites the precipitous drop since Trump took office in the number of people allowed to enter the U.S. after fleeing violence, persecution, and famine in their home countries.
By the end of September each year, the president is required to announce the limit for refugee admissions to the U.S. The determination process is mandated by the Refugee Act of 1980, and requires that the president consult with Congress to reach a decision that is “justified by humanitarian concern.”
In September 2016, President Barack Obama significantly increased that limit to 110,000 for fiscal year 2017, responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. But shortly after taking office, President Trump lowered the refugee ceiling to 50,000 by executive order. In September 2017 and 2018, respectively, Trump cut the maximum number to 45,000 and 30,000.
In recent weeks, rumors have swirled around reports that the Trump administration is considering one of two options for fiscal year 2020: reducing the cap to 10,000 to 15,000 refugees, or dismantling the U.S. refugee resettlement program entirely. Prominent voices have risen in opposition to the anticipated cuts, including high-ranking former military leaders, who argue that failing to accommodate asylum-seekers who have helped our defense, diplomatic, and intelligence efforts could erode national security.
Here in Charlottesville, Kuhr says our local IRC office is not threatened with closing, but she still worries as this year’s deadline draws near. “We don’t know yet what the numbers will be,” she says. “But what we do know is that it seems there is this intention to again significantly reduce the number of refugee admissions at a time when more people are in need than at any other time in history.”
Numbers from the U.N. Refugee Agency back her up. By the end of 2018, the agency reports, 70.8 million individuals worldwide had been forcibly displaced. These included 25.9 million refugees, less than 1 percent of whom have the opportunity to resettle in another country.
“Even before any of this started with Trump, the number of refugees who ever get resettled in a third country—that’s including the U.S. and Canada, all of Europe, and any other country—was already a tiny, tiny number,” says Kuhr. “But now that solution for some of the most vulnerable people in the world is under threat for no apparent reason.”
“We have people who have already been vetted,” she continues. “They have already gone through a stringent security process. They have been found to be in dire need of a new start and a new life—and we’re basically turning our backs on them.”
In 2018, the IRC resettled 154 people here, far below its capacity of 250. “Charlottesville has been a wonderful place for refugee families,” she says. “They feel safe here. They feel welcome. The kids are thriving in school. The parents are working. We know there are people in need of what we have to offer. Yet we’re not being allowed to [offer it].”
Kuhr hasn’t given up hope, but neither is she optimistic. “My expectation is that no matter what happens, the IRC is not going away. We will still be here. We are still resettling a significant number of people, but a lot less than we were two or three years ago.”