Refugee resettlement agencies based in Lancaster County on Thursday decried the Trump administration’s proposal to cap 2021 admissions at 15,000 -- a 3,000-person reduction from last year's cap and a fraction of the number set in Barack Obama's last year in office.
“CWS is outraged...the new proposed admission ceiling represents an 80% cut from historic norms, which is unacceptable from a humanitarian standpoint,” Valentina Ross, director of Church World Service Lancaster, said in a statement Thursday. “Globally, the country is abdicating its responsibility to offer safe haven to the most vulnerable, at a time when the world is facing the worst displacement crisis in history.”
In a letter to Congress Wednesday evening, the administration cited the backlog of asylum cases and the effects of COVID-19. Priority will be given to asylum seekers who are already in the country, the letter said.
But advocates say the new limit is such a departure from the numbers set in the past, meaning even fewer refugees will actually arrive in the United States. And for a community that has helped resettle generations of families for over 30 years, the recent changes have felt dire.
In fiscal year 2020, the administration set the cap at 18,000 – then a historic low – but ended up resettling only 10,000 individuals, said Mike Unger, regional branch director of Bethany Christian Services of Lancaster.
The cap is important because it, in turn, determines how much money resettlement agencies receive from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Lowering the cap every year drains resources from the resettlement system, resulting in even fewer refugees being resettled, Unger said.
For example, the reduction in resettlement numbers led Catholic Charities to close down all but one of their affiliate offices in Pennsylvania?, according to Erin James, Department of Human Services press secretary.
His organization favors raising the cap to 95,000 to 100,000 annually, closer to the 110,000 person cap President Obama proposed in his last months in office.
According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, the highest ceiling was set in 1980 -- the first year of the federal program -- at about 232,000. That year, 207,116 people were resettled nationally.
From 2001 to 2015, the ceiling hovered between 70,000 and 80,000, peaking at 85,000 in 2016. Since 2016, the number has declined dramatically, MPI data shows.
According to Unger, prior to 2016, Bethany Christian Services' Lancaster office resettled between 200-300 individuals a year. Last year, the agency resettled fewer than 20, he said.
COVID-19 played a role in the low number of refugee families resettled over the past year, as resettlement work was suspended for several months as a health precaution. But the program was already off pace by March, said Jen Smyers, CWS director of policy and advocacy.
“It’s not just a shock to the system this year, it’s really a long-term damage to the program in addition to the immediate impact to the program,” Smyers said.
The United States' falling admissions caps has also led to “a race to the bottom” internationally as other countries have followed and reduced their resettlement commitments, she said.
The Trump administration did not make the FY 2021 cap official yet with the submission of the required presidential determination, the second year in a row that it missed the Sept. 30 set by Congress. Last year, the presidential determination was not issued until Nov. 1.
“We strongly urge Congress to require the administration to urgently hold consultations in good faith, substantially increase the proposed refugee admissions goal to be in line with historic norms, and sign an official Presidential Determination as soon as possible,” Ross, with CWS, said.
Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is a co-sponsor of a bill that would set the floor for refugee admissions at 95,000, letting the president decide what ceiling to impose. The bill – the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act – was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2019 and is unlikely to move in the Republican-controlled chamber.
“After the horrors of WWII, our Nation vowed to offer protection to those fleeing persecution and violence,” Casey said. “Lowering the cap on refugees - to the lowest point in our history - is yet another effort by this Administration to limit legal immigration, and breaks that American promise.”
The office of Casey’s GOP counterpart, Sen. Pat Toomey, said the senator was still reviewing the administration’s proposal as of Thursday afternoon.
“Generally speaking, Senator Toomey believes it is important that the United States continues to provide, when feasible, a safe haven for people legitimately fleeing persecution who qualify for refugee status,” a statement said.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker said his record shows that he is in favor of the refugee resettlement program and that he is certain that the Lancaster community will continue to be welcoming.
“The President has the discretion to set the number of refugees admitted into the United States,” he said in a statement Thursday. “I am thankful that the refugee resettlement program continues despite the significant impacts from COVID-19 and the challenges the pandemic may continue to pose in the future.”
Locally, resettled Lancastrians will have to wait longer to be reunited with their family members abroad, Ross said.
“These new Americans are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends,” she said. “Their pain is our pain.”
Lancaster was dubbed as the "Refugee Capital" by BBC in 2017 based on the county's reception of 1,300 refugees from 2013 to 2017 -- 20 times more per capita than the U.S. as a whole.