June 14, 2017

The Fall and Rise of Refugee Resettlement in 2017



The number of refugees resettled in the U.S. has fallen considerably since the start of fiscal year (FY) 2017. Although President Trump’s travel ban cutting refugee admissions was halted by the federal courts, overall refugee resettlement has nonetheless declined. While we may yet see an increase in the coming months, the overall negative impact on our refugee system has been substantial.

As of June 7, 46,835 refugees have arrived in the U.S. The year started strong with 9,945 arrivals in October, followed by steady refugee arrival numbers in November and December.

Since late January, however—coinciding with the inauguration of President Trump— just 16,818 refugees have been resettled, with an average of 3,500 refugees arriving each month. In March, refugee arrivals reached an extreme low: 2,070 total arrivals, which is the lowest number since October of FY14. Before that, the lowest was in March of FY11.

Of all the refugees resettled so far in this fiscal year, several thousand come from countries banned by President Trump’s executive order, including: 6,239 from Syria; 6,385 from Iraq; and 5,481 from Somalia. In fact, a total of 21,262 refugees safely resettled in the U.S. without incident, although they hail from the countries covered by the travel bans.

While the travel ban—currently blocked by the courts—played a part in the declining numbers of refugees, there were other factors that contributed as well.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) slowed down the process by delaying interviews with refugees. Circuit rides—travel by agents to different countries to conduct refugee interviews— were suspended on January 25th, then put on a reduced schedule through March. They also failed to re-run the expired medical and security checks required for entry.

Further, the State Department installed weekly quotas for refugee arrivals due to budget constraints, reducing the number to just 900 refugees per week. As a result, restricted funding to refugee resettlement agencies forced them to downsize by laying off several hundred employees throughout the country. Some of these caseworkers had valuable skills, such as fluency in diverse languages, which made them difficult to replace.

Congress passed a budget for the rest of this fiscal year with enough funding to resettle a total of 75,000 refugees. As there are only four months left in the fiscal year, meeting this goal would require the State Department to resettle roughly 7,300 refugees each month. With just 3,300 refugees arriving in each of the past two months, that number seems unlikely, but the trend may be changing.

Often, refugee resettlement efforts tend to increase during the last half of each fiscal year, so it is possible to reach the 75,000 cap. Additionally, the State Department recently lifted its weekly quota on refugee arrivals. Instead of just 900 refugees arriving each week, resettlement agencies can now expect up to 1,500.

Further, the State Department and DHS are expanding the number of interviews they conduct in foreign countries to increase the number of refugees arriving. This means increased funding to resettlement agencies, who are beginning to rehire many of their staffers.

While far from the initial goal of 110,000, and below last year’s total of 84,994, 75,000 is still significantly higher than the limit that President Trump proposed in his executive order—50,000—which many feel is a victory in and of itself.

If President Trump’s budget for FY18 is any indication, however, that victory might be short-lived. The proposed budget cuts 31% from refugee resettlement programs, and the administration clearly intends to reduce refugee resettlement as drastically as possible in FY18. These are ominous prospects for refugees, resettlement agencies, and concerned citizens alike.