The Corner


Refugee Admissions Likely to Rise

Members of a migrant caravan from Central America and their supporters look through the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Border Field State Park before making an asylum request, in San Diego, California, April 29, 2018. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The administration yesterday announced the FY 2019 refugee-resettlement ceiling would be 30,000, the lowest since the current program was created in 1980. The ceiling for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30, is 45,000, so the news reports have focused on the lower number.

But this is a ceiling, not a target, and not necessarily the actual number to be admitted. In fact, by the time FY 2018 ends in a couple of weeks, we will have resettled only about 21,000 refugees from abroad, under half the ceiling, because of the travel ban and the development of enhanced screening procedures. It is likely that the number of refugees actually admitted in FY 2019 will be closer to the new ceiling, and thus higher than the actual number admitted this year.

In making the announcement, Secretary of State Pompeo also pointed out that the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens trying to prevent deportation by applying for asylum are part of the same refugee system. In fact, the United States is unusual in separating out refugees (whom we define as those we decide to bring to the U.S. from abroad) from asylum applicants (usually illegal aliens who sneak in and then demand the right to stay). The same standard in judging refugee claims, from U.N. treaties and incorporated into the Refugee Act of 1980, is used in both cases.

Critics have engaged in the usual hyperbole: “shameful abdication of our humanity” which “will lead to innocent people dying.” I’m sure they’re sincere in the outrage, but that doesn’t mean they’re correct. The refugee-resettlement contractors — whom the State Department pays by the head for each refugee admitted — have pushed for a ceiling of 75,000, a little more than double the announced number. But would that really make any difference? There are 25 million refugees in the world, plus another 40 million people displaced within their own countries — any politically plausible numbers of admissions is a drop in the ocean.

As I’ve argued here before, large-scale refugee resettlement is immoral. It is enormously more expensive to bring people here rather than to care for them in the countries where they’ve fled, meaning that each refugee we admit from abroad literally takes bread from the mouth of numerous others who didn’t win the resettlement lottery. What’s more, relocation to the U.S. makes it vanishingly unlikely a refugee will ever move back home, even after the reasons for flight have disappeared; as the Dalai Lama recently emphasized, refugees “ultimately should rebuild their own country.”

There is a place for resettlement of refugees in third countries, but it should be reserved for the most desperate who genuinely have nowhere else to go, never will, and can’t stay where they are for another moment. That’s a high bar, as it must be. Advocates of large-scale resettlement claim that all those being resettled fit that description, but the U.N.’s own data prove that to be false. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported in June on its 2017 activities. UNHCR broke out the refugees it recommended for third-country resettlement into three categories of need: Normal, Urgent, and Emergency. (See the bottom of p. 75.) Urgent and Emergency are the only categories of refugees who should be considered for resettlement, and in 2017 they totaled 5,634 people. For the whole world. We could take them all and still not approach the ceiling announced yesterday.


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