WASHINGTON — The White House is considering a plan that would keep most refugees who are fleeing war, persecution and famine out of the United States, significantly cutting back a decades-old program, according to current and former administration officials.
One 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 people from a few countries or from groups with special status, such as Iraqis and Afghans who work alongside American troops, diplomats and intelligence operatives abroad. Another option, proposed by a top administration official, would reduce refugee admissions to zero, while leaving the president with the ability to admit some in an emergency.
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 White House officials plan to convene a high-level meeting to discuss the annual number of refugee admissions for the coming year, as determined by President Trump.
“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, Mr. 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 percent cut from its level when President Barack Obama left office.
The move has been part of Mr. Trump’s broader effort to reduce the number of documented and undocumented immigrants entering the United States, including numerous restrictions on asylum seekers, who, like refugees, are fleeing persecution but cross into the United States over the border with Mexico or Canada.
Now, Mr. 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 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, made the argument 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 operation out of existence, making it impossible to resettle even those narrow populations.
“Pulling the rug out from under refugees and the resettlement program, as is reported, is unfair, inhumane and strategically flawed for the United States,” said Nazanin Ash, the vice president for global policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “This is a program that is reserved for, and vital to, the most vulnerable refugees.”
Now, officials at the advocacy groups say the fate of the program increasingly hinges on an unlikely figure: Mark T. Esper, the secretary of defense, who they are hoping will save the program by protesting the cut and recommending that Mr. Trump set a higher refugee ceiling.
Barely two months into his job as Pentagon chief, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Esper’s position on the issue is unknown.
The senior military leadership at the Defense Department has been urgently pressing Mr. 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 Mr. Esper as in a “foxhole defilade” position, a military term for the infantry’s effort to remain shielded or concealed from enemy fire.
For two years, Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s top immigration advisor, has used his influence to reduce the refugee ceiling to its lowest levels in history.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
A senior Defense Department official said that Mr. 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 Mr. Esper to pick up where Mr. Mattis left off.
In a letter to Mr. 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 Mr. Mattis made when he was at the Pentagon. They called the refugee program a “critical lifeline” to people who help American 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 decades-long precedent, and commensurate with today’s urgent global needs,” wrote the military brass, including Admiral William H. McRaven, the former commander of United States Special Operations; General Martin E. Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Lt. General Mark P. Hertling, the former commanding general of Army forces in Europe.
They said that even the current ceiling of 30,000 was “leaving thousands in harm’s way.”
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who retired this year after overseeing the American 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 was one of the driving forces of instability in the region.
“We don’t do anything alone,” General Votel said of American military operations overseas, which are regularly helped by Iraqi citizens who become persecuted refugees. “This is not just the price we pay but an obligation.”
Mr. Mattis privately made the same arguments in 2018 and 2019 as he tried to fight back efforts by Mr. Miller to cut the refugee cap, which had already been reduced to 50,000 by Mr. Trump’s travel ban executive order.
Joined by Rex W. Tillerson, who was then the secretary of state, and Nikki R. Haley, the United Nations ambassador at the time, Mr. Mattis succeeded in keeping the cap at 45,000 for 2018. The next year, Mr. Miller tried to persuade Mr. Mattis to support a lower number by promising to ensure the program for the Iraqi and Afghans would not be affected. But Mr. Mattis refused, pushing for the program to remain at 45,000 refugees. But with Mr. Tillerson gone, Mr. Miller succeeded in persuading 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,” Mr. Pompeo said at the time.
Now, a year later, Mr. 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 America 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.”
The State Department was once the main steward and champion of the refugee resettlement program, but under Mr. Trump, that has changed, as the president and Mr. Miller have made clear that they view it with disdain. The top State Department official now in charge of refugees is Andrew Veprek, a former aide of Mr. Miller’s at the White House Domestic Policy Council who — with Mr. Zadrozny — was a central player in 2017 in efforts to scale back refugee resettlement as much as possible.
That has left the Defense Department as the last agency that could potentially preserve the refugee program. Its proponents inside the administration say they feel a sense of desperation waiting to see whether Mr. Esper will become its advocate.
“The strength of D.O.D.’s argument would really make a difference,” Ms. Strack said. “There just needs to be an acknowledgment that this administration would be walking away from a longstanding, bipartisan tradition of offering refuge to the most vulnerable people around the world.”
That sense of foreboding has intensified in recent weeks, as Mr. Miller has locked down the process for determining the refugee ceiling, to guard against leaks and cut down on opportunities for officials to intervene to save it. Normally, cabinet-level officials would be informed in advance of the options to be discussed at a meeting like the one scheduled on Tuesday.
This time, officials have been informed that their bosses will learn what numbers the White House is proposing only when they sit down at the table and are asked to weigh in.
( N.Y. Times)