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Trump administration sets refugee cap at 15,000, a new record low

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The Trump administration said it is planning to take in no more than 15,000 refugees in fiscal year 2021, slashing resettlement spots to yet another historic low as millions of people around the world find themselves displaced by armed conflict, violence and other forms of persecution.

Just before fiscal year 2020 ended on Wednesday at midnight, the State Department unveiled the new refugee ceiling, again citing the tens of thousands of asylum petitions it expects to receive in the next 12 months as a reason to continue downsizing the refugee program, which has been derided by President Trump and some of his top lieutenants.

Relevant committees in the House and Senate were informed of the new refugee cap before 11 p.m., congressional officials told CBS News.

Mr. Trump has reduced refugee spots year after year, radically departing from the 110,000-person cap President Obama set in his last year in office. Mr. Trump slashed refugee spots to 45,000 in fiscal year 2018; to 30,000 in fiscal year 2019; and to 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.

Because of a temporary admissions freeze during the first months of the pandemic, the U.S. admitted roughly 11,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, another record low, according to State Department data.

At the end of last year, there were nearly 80 million people — including more than 30 million children — who had been forcibly displaced from their homes around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We have known all along, and this administration has demonstrated their deep hostility to refugees. And so this fiscal year is just the latest dramatic example of the downward spiral," Barbara Strack, who led the refugee affairs division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until her retirement in 2018, told CBS News.

The State Department said the 15,000 spots for the next 12 months will be reserved for those fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who assisted U.S. forces and refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Cuba and Venezuela.  

Barring some exceptions, no new refugees can be admitted in the next 12 months until Mr. Trump signs his formal annual determination, which is supposed to occur after a consultation with Congress under the Refugee Act of 1980. That consultation has yet to occur, angering Democratic lawmakers.

According to U.S. resettlement groups and Democratic Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Lofgren, the Trump administration has placed a moratorium on refugee admissions through October 26.

If he wins, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to take in 125,000 refugees during his first year in office — a goal experts say is lofty, given the toll the ceiling cuts have had on the U.S. resettlement infrastructure.

In its statement on Wednesday, the State Department said the U.S. government expects to receive 290,000 asylum applications in the next 12 months. But it failed to note that not all applicants are ultimately granted asylum, another humanitarian protection the administration has severely restricted, especially for migrants who cross the southern border.

The State Department also said it is employing diplomacy and allocating billions of dollars to prevent and address crises around the world that are prompting people to flee their homes, highlighting a $9 billion humanitarian aid package distributed in fiscal year 2019. "We are working to assist refugees and other displaced people as close to their homes as possible until they can safely and voluntarily return to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their countries," the department added.

Mr. Trump and some of his advisers have repeatedly criticized the refugee program, portraying refugees as economic and cultural burdens to U.S. communities and arguing that some could pose a risk to national security. The president has, on numerous occasions, referenced refugees while campaigning to galvanize his supporters, telling them at a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday that Biden would "inundate" their state with a "historic flood of refugees."

"It's such a tragedy to see refugees used as political pawns," Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement office, told CBS News. "This program has always had bipartisan support. Let's not forget that President Reagan resettled the highest number of refugees than any president."

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