The President of the United States – with input from advisors and Congress – sets a number for the “refugee ceiling” prior to the start of a new fiscal year.  The refugee ceiling determines the maximum number of refugees that can be admitted into the country in a given fiscal year.  It is not a requirement that the actual number of refugees admitted in a fiscal year meet the ceiling number.

The refugee ceiling for FY2020 was set at 18,000.  It is the lowest presidential determination in the nearly 40 year history of the refugee resettlement program. In light of the global pandemic, COVID-19, only 3,085 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. in 2020.

To give some perspective, in 2020 is was reported that of the 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, there are 26 million refugees.

The chart below shows the refugee ceiling determination and actual arrival numbers for each year since the inception of the official refugee resettlement program in 1980.  The average ceiling number over the 38 years prior to the Trump Administration was 95,857.  The average actual arrival number over the same period of time is 80,981.

Clear answers are not forthcoming.  While the Trump administration has cited a number of reasons over the past two years – including security concerns, many within the refugee resettlement field believe that these are thinly disguised excuses for pushing forward an agenda that includes either a purposeful suppression or the systematic dismantling of the refugee resettlement program.

Despite the already low ceiling of 45,000 in 2018, only half of that number (22,491) were actually admitted to the United States.  To give some perspective, more refugees were admitted to the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 (in FY2002) – even with the heightened alerts and increased security standards – than in 2018.

In 2019 the Presidential Administration continued a pattern of setting a historically low ceiling at only 30,000. Due to a huge push on the part of political advocates, 30,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in FY2019.

The President’s “travel ban” has certainly impacted refugee arrivals from countries that are included on the “banned” list – most notably, Somalia and Syria.  However, as the chart below shows, there has overall been a decline in arrivals from all areas of the world, with the exception of Europe and Central Asia.  Thus, the decline in refugee arrivals does not appear to be a result merely of the “travel ban”.  Many professionals in the Refugee Resettlement field have suggested that the overall decline in refugee arrivals is the result of a purposeful suppression of the program.

In January 2017, the president issued an initial executive order that instituted travel restrictions for individuals from certain countries that had been deemed a security risk.  In addition, the order specifically sought to suspend the refugee resettlement program and to decrease the number of refugees slated to enter the U.S. in fiscal year 2017.  This executive order was commonly called a “travel ban”.

The “travel ban” was the subject of immense discussion and was challenged in the court system on multiple occasions.  The ban went through several revisions by the Trump administration over the course of 2017-2018.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the final version of the ban in June 2018.  You can read the most recent version of the “travel ban” here.

Updated 9/25/2020