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White House looks at cut in refugees entering U.S.

by Julie Hirschfeld Davisand Michael D. Shear The New York Times | September 7, 2019 at 3:20 a.m. | Updated September 7, 2019 at 3:20 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The White House is weighing 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.

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 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 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.

John Zadrozny, a top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has argued for lowering the ceiling to zero, a stance that was first reported by the political news outlet "Politico." Others have suggested providing "carve-outs" for certain countries or populations, such as the Iraqis and Afghans whose work on behalf of the American government put them and their families at risk.

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 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, James Mattis, had taken up the refugee cause, 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.

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.

"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 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 made the same arguments in 2018 and 2019 as he tried to fight efforts by Miller to cut the refugee cap, which had already been reduced to 50,000 by Trump's travel-ban executive order.

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."

A Section on 09/07/2019

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