Washington • The White House is considering a plan that would effectively bar refugees from most parts of the world from resettling in the United States by cutting back the decades-old program that admits tens of thousands of people each year who are fleeing war, persecution and famine, according to current and former administration officials.
In meetings over the past several weeks, one top administration official has proposed zeroing out the program altogether, while leaving the president with the ability to admit refugees in an emergency. Another option that top officials are weighing would cut refugee admissions by half or more, to 10,000 to 15,000 people, but reserve most of those spots for refugees from a few hand-picked countries or groups with special status, such as Iraqis and Afghans who work alongside American troops, diplomats and intelligence operatives abroad.
Both options would all but end the United States’ status as a leader in accepting refugees from around the world.
The issue is expected to come to a head on Tuesday, when the White House plans to convene a high-level meeting in the Situation Room to discuss at what number President Donald Trump should set the annual, presidentially determined ceiling on refugee admissions for the coming year.
“At a time when the number of refugees is at the highest level in recorded history, the United States has abandoned world leadership in resettling vulnerable people in need of protection,” said Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International. “The result is a world that is less compassionate and less able to deal with future humanitarian challenges.”
For two years, Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration adviser, has used his considerable influence in the West Wing to reduce the refugee ceiling to its lowest levels in history, capping the program at 30,000 this year. That is a more than 70% cut from its level when President Barack Obama left office.
The move has been part of Trump’s broader effort to reduce the number of immigrants from entering the United States both legally and illegally, including numerous restrictions on asylum-seekers, who, like refugees, are fleeing from persecution but cross into the United States over the border with Mexico or Canada.
Now, Miller and allies from the White House whom he placed at the departments of State and Homeland Security are pushing aggressively to shrink the program even further, according to one senior official involved in the discussions and several former officials briefed on them, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the private deliberations.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.
John Zadrozny, a top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has argued for simply lowering the ceiling to zero, a stance that was first reported by Politico. Others have suggested providing “carveouts” for certain countries or populations, such as the Iraqis and Afghans, whose work on behalf of the American government put both them and their families at risk, making them eligible for special status to come to the United States through the refugee program.
Advocates of the nearly 40-year-old refugee program inside and outside the administration fear that approach would effectively starve the program, making it impossible to resettle even those narrow populations. The advocacy groups say the fate of the program increasingly hinges on an unlikely figure: Mark Esper, the secretary of defense.
Barely two months into his job as Pentagon chief, Esper, a former lobbyist and defense contracting executive, is the newest voice at the table in the annual debate over how many refugees to admit. But while Esper’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, had taken up the refugee cause with an almost missionary zeal, repeatedly declining to embrace large cuts because of the potential effect he said they would have on American military interests around the world, Esper’s position on the issue is unknown.
The senior military leadership at the Defense Department has been urgently pressing Esper to follow his predecessor’s example and be an advocate for the refugee program, according to people familiar with the conversations in the Pentagon.
But current and former senior military officials said the defense secretary had not disclosed to them whether he would fight for higher refugee admissions at the White House meeting next week. One former general described Esper as in a “foxhole defilade” position, a military term for the infantry’s effort to remain shielded or concealed from enemy fire.
A senior Defense Department official said that Esper had not decided what his recommendation would be for the refugee program this year. As a result, an intense effort is underway by a powerful group of retired generals and humanitarian aid groups to persuade Esper to pick up where Mattis left off.
In a letter to Trump on Wednesday, some of the nation’s most distinguished retired military officers implored the president to reconsider the cuts, taking up the national security argument that Mattis made when he was at the Pentagon. They called the refugee program a “critical lifeline” to people who help U.S. troops, diplomats and intelligence officials abroad, and warned that cutting it off risked greater instability and conflict.
“We urge you to protect this vital program and ensure that the refugee admissions goal is robust, in line with decadeslong precedent, and commensurate with today’s urgent global needs,” wrote the military brass, including Adm. William McRaven, the former commander of U.S. Special Operations; Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the former commanding general of Army forces in Europe.
They said even the current ceiling of 30,000 is “leaving thousands in harm’s way.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, who retired this year after overseeing the U.S. military’s command that runs operations in the Middle East, also signed the letter. In an interview, he noted that the flows of refugees leaving war-torn countries like Syria is one of the driving forces of instability in the region.
“We don’t do anything alone,” Votel said of U.S. military operations overseas, which is regularly helped by Iraqi nationals who become persecuted refugees. “This is not just the price we pay but an obligation.”
Mattis privately made the same arguments in 2018 and 2019 as he tried to fight back efforts by Miller to cut the refugee cap, which had already been reduced to 50,000 by Trump’s travel ban executive order.
Joined by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the United Nations ambassador at the time, Mattis succeeded in keeping the cap at 45,000 for 2018. The next year, Miller tried to persuade Mattis to support a lower number by promising to ensure the program for the Iraqi and Afghans would not be affected. But Mattis refused and pushed for the program to remain at 45,000 refugees. But with Tillerson gone, Miller succeeded in convincing the president to drop the ceiling to 30,000.
In his announcement last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that because of a recent surge of asylum-seekers at the southwestern border, there was less of a need for the United States to accept refugees from abroad.
“This year’s refugee ceiling reflects the substantial increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in our country, leading to a massive backlog of outstanding asylum cases and greater public expense,” Pompeo said at the time.
Now, a year later, Miller and his allies have repeatedly made that same argument in urging that the number go even lower.
Barbara Strack, who retired last year as chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the United States used to be a model for other countries by accepting refugees from all over the globe. After the U.S. began accepting Bhutanese refugees from Nepal, she said, other countries followed suit.
“Very often, that leadership matters,” she said. “That is something that is just lost in terms of who the United States is in the world and how other governments see us.”