The United States is set to reach a contentious milestone this week when it accepts its 50,000th refugee for the fiscal year, hitting a ceiling set by President Trump in his quest to sharply curtail immigration into the country.
The 50,000 figure is 41% lower than the 85,000 refugees accepted during President Barack Obama's final year in office, and would be the lowest total in a decade.
The White House said the reduction is necessary to give intelligence agencies time to review vetting procedures used to screen refugees to ensure terrorists don't infiltrate the U.S. posing as refugees. It is the same argument used to justify Trump's temporary travel ban targeting six mostly-Muslim nations.
"We are always looking for additional ways to enhance our screening, whether it be for visa applicants or if it’s for refugees," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Refugee groups counter that it is "morally wrong" for America to turn its back on those escaping war and other horrors when the world is facing its greatest migrant crisis. Hans Van de Weerd, chairman of the Refugee Council USA, which coordinates refugee arrivals in the U.S., said it's more important than ever for the U.S. to perform its historic role as a beacon for those fleeing persecution and violence.
"This administration has chosen yet again to target some of the most vulnerable populations in the world," he said.
The door for refugees will remain partly open, however, due to the June 26 ruling by the Supreme Court that allowed a portion of Trump's travel ban to take effect.
Federal judges blocked two versions of Trump's travel ban that placed a 90-day moratorium on travel from six majority-Muslim countries and a 120-day ban on the entire refugee program. The judges also prevented the administration from lowering the refugee cap to 50,000 from the 110,000 for the year ending Sept. 30 that Obama set before leaving office.
The Supreme Court allowed all of those restrictions to go into effect, but ordered the administration to continue accepting visa applicants and refugees who have a "bona fide" relationship to a U.S. person or entity.
The State Department defined a "bona fide" family relationship as a parent, spouse, fiancée, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling. It will not consider grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as being close enough to qualify.
It remains unclear how many refugees will qualify to enter the U.S. under those guidelines. State estimates that half of all refugees who arrive in the country have some relative already living in the U.S., but refugee organizations could not say how many of those relatives fall into the approved relationships.
The State Department also said that a refugee who has been working with a resettlement agency in the U.S. will not be considered a close enough relationship to qualify. That decision stunned and angered refugee advocates.
Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps place refugees in the U.S., pointed to examples given by the Supreme Court of relationships that would allow foreigners to enter the U.S. One of those examples was a foreign student accepted by a U.S. university.
The court ruled that those students have established a relationship with a U.S. entity, so Fisher doesn't understand why refugees would be treated any differently.
"(For a student) you have an offer letter from a university, and a clear, documented formal connection," Fisher said. "For a refugee who is traveling, you have a clear and documented connection to a local community with housing and connections to provide services."
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