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Trump expected to dramatically lower refugee intake

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

The Trump administration is expected to notify Congress this week that it's dramatically lowering the number of refugees admitted into the United States over the next fiscal year.

Three officials close to the process say the consensus among the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department is to set a cap on the refugee intake somewhere in the range of 40,000 refugees over the next year — far fewer than the 110,000 refugees President Obama said he wanted to welcome into the U.S. in fiscal year 2017 and a reduction from the 50,000 cap that Trump set earlier this year.

What's next: Trump needs to make his final decision on the refugee cap before October 1 (the deadline for the annual decision on refugee admissions required by the Refugee Act of 1980.) A White House official told me that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to consult Congress, before a final decision is made.

Behind-the-scenes

State Department: Two sources close to the process say that Tillerson signed off on a State Department memo recommending that Trump accept a maximum of 45,000 refugees in the next fiscal year.

  • A number of State career officials are unhappy and believe the U.S. should accept a significantly higher number, given the scale of suffering in countries like Iraq and Syria. A senior source at the State Department said many career employees believe the White House is walking away from America's global leadership and harming Tillerson's ability to conduct diplomacy by so dramatically reducing the intake of refugees.
  • A source close to Tillerson said the Secretary of State didn't think now was the time for a "philosophical argument about American diplomacy." The source said Tillerson was "practical" and agreed with the consensus view within the Trump administration that the administration can help exponentially more people by investing in refugee settlement near Iraq and Syria. "It isn't about making America the permanent destination; it's about helping to stabilize these places on the ground," the source said. "You can't stabilize a community by moving to Albany."

Homeland Security: Sources close to the refugee decision process told me the Department of Homeland Security recommended a refugee intake cap slightly lower than Tillerson's 45,000. Homeland Security officials plan to shift resources from processing refugees in foreign countries to vetting the asylum seekers already in the U.S. (some of whom are considered potential security risks.)

White House: Trump's top policy adviser Stephen Miller has advocated for a far lower cap of 20,000 refugees, according to sources close to the process. But other senior administration officials thought Miller's desires were unrealistic and would diminish America's standing with allies.

  • Per a WH official: "The president's strategy on refugees is guided first and foremost by the safety and security of the American people. The United States can also help a larger number of refugees by resettling them in their home region and enabling their eventual safe return home."
  • Trump's final decision will be the culmination of an interagency decision-making process that's run far more smoothly than the administration's early bumbling efforts to roll out the travel ban and other controversial policies.

Bottom line: Trump's refugee decision reflects, as much as anything, how starkly different his worldview is from Obama's. The previous administration wanted to expand the refugee intake amid the horrors in Syria and Iraq; and top officials viewed the program as core to America's leadership and moral standing in the world. The Trump administration officials involved in the process — that I've spoken to — regard an argument over the U.S. intake of refugees as relatively insignificant, with one telling me it "sounds lovely" to take several thousand more, but doesn't put a dent in the larger problem.