Trump Budget Cuts Refugee Resettlement Funding

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Carsten Koall/Getty

The budget submitted to Congress by the Trump administration on Monday for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 cuts refugee resettlement funding significantly in the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, the two departments with primary responsibility for the federal program’s implementation and management.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program category of the State Department’s “Migration and Refugee Assistance” account, which is administered by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and  “funds overseas processing, transportation, and initial placement for refugees and certain other categories of special immigrants resettling in the United States,” is cut by 11 percent from $450 million in FY 2017 (estimated) to $390 million in FY 2018.

Similarly, the “Refugee and Entrant Assistance” account within the Department of Health and Human Services, which is administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and funds “time-limited cash benefits and numerous non-cash Federal benefits, including food assistance through SNAP, medical care, and education,” is cut by 31 percent, from $695 million in FY 2017 (estimated) to $479 million in the fiscal year that begins on October 1.

In FY 2016, the Obama administration admitted 84,995 refugees, the highest in more than two decades. In September, prior to the start of FY 2017, President Obama proposed increasing the ceiling of refugees for that fiscal year by 29 percent to 110,000.

The final number of refugees resettled in the United States by the federal government in FY 2017, after several twists and turns, is likely to be about 60,672.

While fewer than Obama’s last full year, it is still greater than any full year under the administration of George W. Bush, which ranged from a low of 28,390 in FY 2003 to a high of 60,191 in FY 2008, according to the State Department’s interactive website.

Before FY 2016, the number of refugees resettled in the United States under the Obama administration declined from 74,649 in FY 2009 to 56,424 in FY 2011, then increased to 69,933 in FY 2015.

Media outlets and the voluntary agencies [VOLAGs] who are paid by the federal government to resettle refugees appear to have extrapolated from the refugee resettlement funding decreases in the president’s FY 2018 proposed budget that he will call for a ceiling of 50,000 resettled refugees in FY 2018. The Refugee Act of 1980 requires that the president recommend a refugee ceiling number prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. Traditionally, the president has made that recommendation in September, and in non-presidential transition years, Congress has usually funded the refugee resettlement program to reach that ceiling number.

The Daily Caller, for instance, reported on Wednesday “[t]he White House’s proposed budget for 2018 designates billions of dollars for refugee assistance and supports the resettlement of 50,000 new refugees.”

Subsequent to the Trump adminstration’s release of the proposed FY 2018 budget on Monday, the VOLAGs have begun a lobbying effort to increase the number of refugees resettled in FY 2018 over FY 2017, rather than slightly decrease that number.

HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), one of the top nine VOLAGs, posted this fundraising appeal on its website:

President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 would drastically weaken the United States’ support for refugees during a time when they need our help more than ever. We urge you to support a budget that funds resettlement of at least 75,000 refugees next year and ensures that the millions of refugees that will never be resettled get the services they need to survive.

Ann Corcoran, a prominent critic of the federal refugee resettlement program, writes at Refugee Resettlement Watch that, “although Trump’s proposed FY18 Budget contains (we are told) enough money for as many as 50,000 refugees for FY18, the refugee resettlement contractors are pushing Congress for more.”

The President has the power to set the refugee admissions ceiling for the upcoming year (in “consultation” with Congress), and that is normally done in September.

But, it appears to me that the contractors think they have a chance to move the Republican Congress to appropriate enough money for 75,000 refugees in FY18 and by doing that essentially steal the power the President has under the Refugee Act of 1980.

President Trump’s budget proposal for FY 2018 addresses the high financial cost of refugee resettlement, one component of the refugee issue — the other being security vetting — that played such a significant role in his election in 2016.

“A large proportion of entrants arriving as refugees have minimal levels of education, presenting particular fiscal costs. The HHS Annual Survey of Refugees showed that, in 2015, those who had arrived in the previous five years had less than 10 years of education on average,” the overall budget summary for FY 2018, released by  the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Monday, “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” states:

The survey also showed that of refugees who arrived in the prior five years nearly 50 percent were on Medicaid in 2015, 45 percent received cash assistance, and 75 percent received benefits from SNAP. These federally supported benefit programs are not tracked separately in terms of welfare and other benefits; they are added to the bottom line of the Federal deficit and Federal programs.

The way that refugee spending is typically budgeted for makes it difficult to attribute the full fiscal costs, including appropriated funds for the Department of State and HHS, along with fee-funded programs from the Department of Homeland Security. Additional State and local funding for services, including public education, is not captured in the Federal budget, nor are local and State taxes collected from refugees to the Federal Government. While HHS is appropriated funds specifically for refugee benefits, many others, including SNAP and Medicaid, are unallocated to refugees.

“The paradoxical effect of refugee spending is that the larger the number the United States admits for domestic resettlement, the fewer people the united States [sic] is able to help overall; each refugee admitted into the united States comes at the expense of helping a potentially greater number out of country,” the budget summary adds:

Thus, reducing the number of refugees increases the number of dislocated persons the united States is financially able to assist, while increasing the number of refugees may have the effect of reducing the total size of the refugee population the united States is able to assist financially.

The politics of the refugee resettlement budget for FY 2018 has been caught up in the drama surrounding the federal court decisions that have struck down both of President Trump’s executive orders that temporarily banned travel from several Middle Eastern countries and also temporarily halted refugee admissions from all countries.

During the 3 months and 20 days of FY 2017 in which Obama served as president, a total of 30,122 refugees were admitted, according to the State Department’s interactive website. Had that rate continued for the full twelve months of FY 2017, a total of 98, 491 would have been admitted.

During the 1 month and 25 days between January 21, President Trump’s first full day in office, until March 15, the day Federal District Judge Derrick Watson ruled — unconstitutionally many critics argue — that President Trump did not have the authority to limit the ceiling of refugees to be resettled in the United States during FY 2017 to 50,000 as he did in Executive Order 13780, a total of 7,990 refugees were resettled in the United States.

In two months and 9 days since Judge Watson’s decision, from March 16 to May 24, a total of 7,421 refugees have been resettled in the United States.

To date, 45,533 refugees have been admitted to the United States in the first 7 months and 24 days of FY 2017.

The Trump administration, surprisingly, conceded at the operational level to Judge Watson’s ruling by increasing the rate at which it resettled refugees in the United States.

In the four weeks immediately preceding that decision, from February 16 to March 15, a total of 2,550 refugees were resettled, an average of 637 per week.

Shortly after Judge Watson’s decision, the State Department said that it was adjusting the number of refugees resettled upward, and that adjusted rate is now expected to continue throughout the balance of FY 2017.

The reported numbers confirm the State Department has made that upward adjustment.

In the most recent four weeks, from April 27 to May 24, a total of 3,271 refugees were resettled, an average of 817, according to the State Department’s interactive website.

If the State Department continues to resettle refugees in the United States at the rate of 817 per week for the 18 weeks and 2 days that remain in FY 2017, it will bring in an additional 14,939 people. Added to the 45,533 who have already been resettled to date in FY 2017, the final number of resettled refugees for the year will be 60,672.

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