Refugee admissions: Safety and redevelopment, not a number
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With the federal government’s new fiscal year upon us, the administration has initiated consultations with the Congress to inform the president’s determination of the maximum number of refugees that may be admitted into the United States in fiscal year 2020.  Accordingly, it is worth providing some key points to inform the ongoing public discussion on this issue.

Many of those interested in this process focus specifically and solely on the number that the president proposes for refugee admissions, without considering the broader humanitarian picture. These advocates have consistently argued that the number should be higher. But their singular focus on the refugee ceiling number makes this number arbitrary. It shows that such advocates are not interested in true refugee protection or improving the integrity of the process; they just want more foreign nationals physically in the U.S. Some of the individuals and groups that advocate for a high refugee ceiling also profit considerably from the resettlement process.

Instead, we must focus on identifying and resettling bona fide refugees and prioritize regional and global security and development. Watering down the requirements to hit an arbitrarily high number desired by some does not serve true refugees well.


The definition of a refugee is written in statute. Simply stated, a refugee is a person who is outside of his or her country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Someone who crosses a border into another country to escape poor conditions in their home country is not automatically a “refugee.” They should not reflexively be labeled as such. Becoming a “refugee” requires a legal conclusion after a foreign national proves they meet all the elements of the statutory definition.

Foreign nationals who apply for asylum must prove the same statutory elements as applicants for refugee status; the only difference is where the applicant is located. If it is inside the U.S. or at a port of entry, a person applies for asylum; if it is outside the U.S., he seeks refugee status. As such, both asylum applications and refugee cases should be considered together, as two elements of our humanitarian protection work. It is worth noting that most other countries consider refugee and asylum relief together as humanitarian relief. As the president’s FY2020 refugee resettlement ceiling determination is discussed, the enormous volume of asylum applications and the limited resources available to adjudicate both kinds of humanitarian protection should be part of the equation.

The U.S. has seen an historically high number of foreign nationals seeking to cross our southern border and apply for asylum over the past five years. This phenomenon, coupled with the Obama administration’s focus on admitting record numbers of refugees, particularly from countries such as Syria, has resulted in an extremely high backlog of asylum cases. The number of individuals in asylum cases currently pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the immigration courts exceeds one million. This staggering number has real-world effects on agency personnel and budgets, and it cannot be overlooked when discussing the FY2020 refugee ceiling.

We must preserve access to humanitarian protection for bona fide refugees and asylees, while discouraging ineligible applicants from misusing it, which delays relief for meritorious cases. Although many advocates argue for more U.S. refugee admissions, we can help many more refugees closer to their homes, and do so more rapidly and cost-efficiently, than we could possibly do here in the United States. This facilitates their safe and voluntary return when conditions allow, so they can participate in rebuilding their homelands, promoting recovery and long-term stability of those countries and their neighbors. This means the U.S. government should continue working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organizations to support displaced people. It does not mean the U.S. government should absorb an unlimited number of refugees while foreign countries neglect the natural rights of their citizens.  

The U.S. accepts and adjudicates a high volume of asylum applications, we admit a substantial number of refugees, and the U.S. provides significant humanitarian and development assistance to other countries. In addition, it is important to remember the many other forms of humanitarian relief that the U.S. provides to aliens, including Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Enforced Departure, humanitarian parole, visas for victims of crime (“U” visa) and trafficking of persons (“T” visa), and benefits for unaccompanied alien children. Accordingly, no one can fairly claim that the U.S. is not doing enough to uphold its humanitarian obligations. To the contrary, the U.S. remains the most generous nation on the planet in providing humanitarian protection.

As public discussions about refugee resettlement happen over the coming weeks, let’s focus on how best to identify true refugees, wherever they are in the world, and where best they should be helped to protect them and to promote their repatriation when home-country conditions improve. This is consistent with the intent of refugee protection and helps foster rebuilding and long-run stability abroad. This kind of humanitarian relief is about real safety, not just an arbitrary number.  

Lora Ries is the chief of staff of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.