This blog was coauthored by Maiya Moncino, a research associate in international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On September 17, the Trump administration announced intentions to further lower the refugee ceiling to 30,000 for fiscal year 2019. The current cap of 45,000 refugees who can be resettled in the United States is already an all-time low. By comparison, the ceiling hovered around 90,000 during President Reagan’s administration, between 125,000 and 142,000 during the George H.W. Bush years, and above 70,000 during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When Obama left office, the ceiling was at 110,000. As the ceiling makes it more and more difficult for refugees to enter the United States, women and children are hit particularly hard. I have written previously about how women refugees face their own set of dangers, including increased risk for sexual assault, forced marriage, and trafficking.
During his campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump insisted that refugees applying to come to the United States “are all men…And not only are they men, they are young men and they are strong as can be. They’re tough-looking cookies.” In fact, in fiscal year 2016, 72 percent of refugees admitted were women and children.
As Maggie Sullivan and Timothy Rich have argued in the Washington Post, Trump’s insistence that refugees are majority male stokes a fear of single men—particularly single Muslim men—whom some observers have unfairly stereotyped as posing a security threat to the United States. Sullivan and Rich found that Americans were 7.4 percent more likely to support an increase in the number of admitted refugees when emphasis was placed on women and children. In other words, by claiming that refugees are majority male, President Trump erodes support for an increased refugee ceiling.
In fiscal year 2018, not even 22,000 refugees were admitted to the United States, far below the already-low cap of 45,000. Given that fact, lowering the cap even further may seem reasonable. However, under the Obama administration, the refugee ceiling was regarded as a goal and actual refugee admissions were very close to the maximum. That has not been the case under the Trump administration, in part because of stricter security checks, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While strong security standards are critical, the United States should also uphold its commitment to be a safe haven for refugees and other displaced people around the world. If the United States wants to continue being, as Mike Pompeo affirmed, “the most generous nation in the world,” then we should hope that, in future, the refugee ceiling is increased once more.