BALTIMORE—Maryland organizations criticized as “cynical” and “astounding” the Thursday decision by the Trump Administration to decrease the national refugee admissions ceiling to its lowest level ever.
The cap for fiscal 2020 will be 18,000 refugees, down from the ceiling of 110,000 set by President Obama in 2017, according to a news release from the State Department. The decision also allows cities and states to opt out of accepting refugees.
“It’s a cynical renunciation of U.S. humanitarian commitment,” Betty Symington, the executive director of the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, told Capital News Service. Symington described the decision as “part and parcel of a multifaceted attack on immigrants in general.”
Symington, whose organization supports refugees and other immigrants with housing, emergency assistance, education and other services, said, “It’s a very complicated situation but also a very simple one. Unfortunately, we’re not surprised.”
The 18,000 figure represents the lowest level since the 1980 Refugee Act — which established procedures for acceptance and resettlement — and is fewer than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
George Escobar, the chief of programs for CASA de Maryland, called the decision “astounding,” “outrageous,” and “frustrating.” He said it was part of the president’s “xenophobic and racist” immigration policy.
He said refugees have enjoyed bipartisan support, which means refugee organizations have not had to advocate for themselves as strongly as groups like CASA de Maryland, which advocates for immigrants with and without documentation.
“They’re stepping up and joining the broader immigrant fight,” Escobar said.
President Trump has decreased the ceiling four times in a row. The Obama and Bush administrations kept it around 70,000 to 80,000 for most years, reaching a high point of 110,000 during fiscal 2017.
The Trump Administration cut it to 50,000 in 2017, then to 45,000 in fiscal 2018, and to 30,000 in fiscal 2019. The New York Times and other outlets reported this month that the president was considering ending refugee admissions altogether.
In a statement, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said, “Communities and people of faith across the country are deeply disturbed by this unwarranted decision to turn our backs to those most in need.”
The State Department told the country’s nine refugee resettlement agencies, which the government funds, that they may not all receive funding this year.
“At the core of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is a commitment to make decisions based on reality, not wishes, and to drive optimal outcomes based on concrete facts,” the State Department news release said.
The agency cited foreign aid and asylum cases among other methods of humanitarian assistance granted by the United States, which it called “the most compassionate and generous nation in history.”
“It is misguided to see our refugee admissions program as the singular measure of America’s humanitarian-based immigration efforts,” the State Department release said.
Ruben Chandrasekar, the director of the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee, said the group will “most likely” face layoffs. But how his office will be affected “remains to be seen.”
“At a time when there’s a global refugee crisis, the U.S. is withdrawing increasingly so from addressing this crisis,” Chandrasekar said.
“I pray that we won’t have to plan for layoffs,” Vignarajah, who ran for governor in 2018, told Capital News Service.
Paul Spiegel, who directs the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University, said even that high number—110,000—is not very high.
“The burden of refugees is not on the high-income countries,” Spiegel said. Wealthy nations, he said, accept about 1% of the world’s refugees; most of the rest are in countries neighboring those refugees are fleeing. “Beyond a moral obligation to help these people, there’s also an obligation to share the burden.”
Spiegel said the decision will damage the reputation of the United States as a “beacon for welcoming vulnerable people.”
He said many oppose refugee admissions based on a belief that they take more than they contribute to society. He said refugees are not “solely victims,” and many studies have shown refugees are not a financial burden on the countries that accept them.
David Milliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, one of the most prominent refugee resettlement agencies, said in a statement that “this is a very sad day for America.”
“This decision represents further damage to America’s leadership on protecting the most vulnerable people around the world,” he stated. “It has no basis in logic or need, damages America’s interests, and tarnishes her values.”
For five years in a row, and for seven of the past nine, Maryland has taken in a greater share of the country’s refugees than its portion of the country’s population.
Maryland accounts for about 1.85% of the population of the United States, but in fiscal 2019, the state accepted 2.8% of all refugees admitted to the country, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Refugee Processing Center, which is operated by the State Department.
Those cuts have affected all states, but Maryland has accepted a greater share of the refugee population each year since 2016.
Maryland accepted 1,653 refugees in 2016, according to the Refugee Processing Center, which accounted for 1.94% of the refugees the country took. In 2018, the state accepted 465. The state accepted 684 in Fiscal Year 2019, making up 2.77% of the country’s refugees for the year.
More refugees have come to Maryland from the Democratic Republic of the Congo than from any other country in recent years. The state has also accepted many from Burma, Bhutan and Eritrea.
Maryland accepted about 10% of all Eritrean refugees in 2019. And even though more refugees came to Maryland from the Congo from any other country, fewer than 1% of Congolese refugees resettled in the U.S. came to Maryland.
Baltimore, where the population is near a 100-year low, has accepted nearly half of Maryland’s refugees since 2000.
“The city needs residents,” Symington said. “The city needs people to come and put down roots.”
More than 15% of Marylanders are immigrants, and another 11% are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigration Council.
In 2012, Maryland had the eighth-highest share of immigrants among U.S. states, according to the Pew Research Center. Much of the growth of the state’s immigrant population has come since 2000, when less than 10% of Marylanders were immigrants. More of Maryland’s immigrants are from El Salvador than any other country.