President Trump will allow no more than 45,000 refugees into the United States next year, officials announced Wednesday, the lowest cap ever set for resettlement.
The Trump administration officially informed Congress of its decision on Wednesday afternoon. Trump faced a Saturday deadline to set a new refugee cap before the next fiscal year begins.
The decision is likely to fuel fresh public debate about the administration’s migration and national security policies, which Trump says are necessary to keep the country safe.
U.S. officials said the new level represents the maximum number of refugees that can be allowed in while still conducting the vetting necessary to keep out terrorists and criminals.
“The safety and the security of the American people is No. 1, and we want to make sure no one is allowed through who would endanger the safety of the American people,” said one official.
Officials also said the lower cap would allow the Department of Homeland Security to address a backlog of asylum claims, which are filed by people already in the U.S.
Trump’s announcement follows a lengthy debate inside his administration over how many refugees to admit.
Stephen Miller, the president’s most influential policy adviser on immigration issues, reportedly wanted to set the cap as low as 15,000.
But the State Department reportedly preferred allowing in 50,000 refugees next fiscal year, while the Department of Homeland Security pushed for 40,000. The final number splits the difference.
Trump already lowered the refugee cap once this year, dropping it to 50,000 in his travel ban executive order. The U.S. resettled nearly 85,000 refugees in fiscal 2016, while former President Obama set a goal of admitting 110,000 refugees in 2017.
Humanitarian groups say Trump’s policy does not do enough to address the international refugee crisis, which has been accelerated by the Syrian civil war and ethnic strife in Myanmar.
“With historically high numbers of innocent people fleeing violence worldwide, the United States response cannot be to welcome a historically low number of refugees into our country,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations for the Catholic Relief Services.
Administration officials pushed back on criticism, saying the U.S. will continue to be “the largest refugee resettlement country in the world. They also touted the nearly $3 billion in humanitarian assistance the U.S. provided last year to Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. will take in as many as 19,000 refugees from Africa next fiscal year, officials said, while admitting a maximum of 17,500 from the Middle East and South Asia. As many as 5,000 refugees from East Asia will be resettled, along with 2,000 from Europe and 1,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean.
There are 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Under a 1980 law, the president has the power to unilaterally set refugee admission caps. The ceiling has previously not been set below 67,000.
Trump said helping refugees closer to their home countries is more efficient and effective than resettling them. Administration officials say that stance is in line with aid groups and nongovernmental organizations.
“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region,” Trump said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. “This is the safe, responsible and humanitarian approach.”
Trump has pushed to implement stricter immigration controls since becoming president in January. He signed a travel ban in March that temporarily barred visitors from six Muslim-majority countries and suspended refugee admission for four months.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly warned that terrorists might pose as refugees to infiltrate the U.S.
Refugee advocates have expressed fear Trump might deliberately admit fewer than 45,000 refugees.
In some years, the U.S. has resettled fewer refugees than allowed by the annual cap. In 2006, just over 41,000 were admitted when the ceiling was set at 70,000. Officials said the U.S. has already admitted 54,000 this fiscal year.
“I state equivocally that is not our goal — to slow roll it,” one official said, adding that “we have a goal” to reach the ceiling.
The official warned, however, that the final number could depend on new vetting procedures mandated by the travel ban executive order. Under current procedures, the process takes 18-24 months and involves several federal agencies.
The suspension on refugee admission will end on Oct. 24.