Young refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo wait to be registered at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in western Uganda, on December 10, 2018. (File photo: AFP)
The United States plans to dramatically lower the ceiling on a decades-old refugee resettlement program to 18,000 people, officials said Thursday, blaming the influx of migrants along the country's southern border for imposing too great a burden.
It represents a reduction of 40 percent from its current level of 30,000 people, already a record low, threatening America's historic position as the most generous destination for those fleeing war and persecution.
"A responsible approach to refugees is one that seeks the eventual return of refugees to their home countries so that they can help to rebuild their own nations," said President Donald Trump in a statement announcing the move.
It added that under a new order, refugees would only be resettled in jurisdictions where state and local authorities consent.
A separate release by the State Department said the "current burdens on the US immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large numbers of refugees."
It said the influx of migrants along the country's southern border was a "crisis" for imposing "an extraordinary burden."
As a means of serving US foreign policy interests, refugee admissions have specific allocations for people persecuted for religious beliefs, Iraqis whose assistance to the US puts them in danger, and "legitimate refugees" from the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The administration consults with Congress before finalizing refugee admissions changes but in reality the decision-making power falls under the White House.
President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration, both legal and illegal, a core policy, guided by his hardline advisor Stephen Miller.
The current level of 30,000 is already the lowest since the program's inception in 1980. The number stood at almost 85,000 when Trump's predecessor Barack Obama left office.
- 'Sad day for America' -
Migration advocacy groups reacted with dismay.
"This is a very sad day for America," said David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
"This decision represents further damage to America's leadership on protecting the most vulnerable people around the world," he added.
The IRC added that the US currently has 30,000 people who have already undergone interviews for resettlement, far above the new ceiling, with 9,000 ready for travel.
"This administration's eagerness to unilaterally abandon our national commitment to protect people who are seeking safety from persecution, torture, and genocide is sickening," said Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Others questioned the idea that the US immigration system was too burdened.
"What President Trump says is difficult for the United States –- taking in 18,000 over a year -– Colombia does every four days," said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz. "What a sad commentary on American leadership."
The figure is separate from the 350,000 asylum claims the US expects to receive in fiscal year 2020.
Asylum seekers, like refugees, are fleeing persecution but present their applications in the US or at a US port of entry, while refugees apply from abroad.
In recent years the United States has been the world's top resettlement country, according to data from the UN Refugee Agency.
Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries also provide a sizeable number of places annually.
In 2018, the top five origin countries for the US program were DR Congo, Myanmar, Ukraine, Bhutan and Eritrea, according to the Refugee Processing Center.