WASHINGTON — President Trump has decided to slash the American refugee program by almost half, deeply cutting the United States’ role in accepting persecuted refugees from most parts of the world, the State Department announced Thursday.
The administration said it would accept 18,000 refugees during the next 12 months, down from the current limit of 30,000 and a fraction of the 110,000 President Barack Obama said should be allowed into the United States in 2016, his final year in office.
The Trump administration plans to reserve many of the available 18,000 refugee slots for Iraqis who worked with the United States military, some persecuted people from Central America and small groups of religious minorities and persecuted people, the State Department said.
That will eliminate many opportunities for people fleeing war and persecution in other countries to resettle in the United States, which until Mr. Trump took office was the world’s leading destination for refugees.
Mr. Trump’s decision is part of a broader effort, led by Stephen Miller, a White House adviser and architect of the president’s immigration agenda, to reduce the number of legal and illegal immigrants flowing into the country.
Mr. Miller and his allies in the administration argue that the drastic reduction of the refugee program is required because of the increase in the number of asylum seekers trying to enter the United States at the Mexican border.
There is a backlog of almost one million cases in the immigration courts in the United States, many of which are asylum seekers. Mr. Miller and the officials argue that the administration’s resources are better spent processing those cases than bringing more refugees into the United States.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees,” the State Department said in a news release. “Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense.”
But critics of the administration say that the asylum situation at the southwestern border should not be an excuse for abandoning potential refugees from hot spots around the world.
They point out that the backlog in the immigration courts is largely the result of cases where the asylum seekers’ requests need to be evaluated. Most refugees who arrive in the United States have already been screened and vetted before they arrive.
The critics note that the United States was able to process close to 30,000 refugees in the current year even as the number of asylum cases rose in the spring. In recent months, the number of migrants seeking asylum at the border has dropped, which should relieve the pressure on processing cases, they said.
They also say the administration is abandoning a moral duty by the United States to be a world leader in the effort to help people in dire situations. They argue that other countries take their cue from the actions of American presidents.