The Trump administration capped refugee admissions for fiscal year 2019 at a historic low – 45,000. It is looking to lower that number further in 2020. The cap affects not only refugees, but their families and the organizations that support them.

Kojo sits down with Carmel Delshad, an editor and reporter at WAMU,and Ruben Chandrasekar, Maryland director of the International Rescue Committee, to explain the story.

Produced by Laura Spitalniak


  • Carmel Delshad Editor and reporter; @cdelshad
  • Ruben Chandrasekar Maryland Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee; @Just1RC


  • 12:00:20

    KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll dig into how the gun control debate is shaping up on the campaign trail in Virginia in the second installment of our Virginia Votes series. But first, since the U.S. refugee program was first formalized in 1980 an average of 80,000 refugees have entered the United States each year. Under the Trump administration administrations for fiscal year 2020 will be capped at 18,000. As the number of refugees decreased, federal funding is being pulled from resettlement organizations. Human rights advocates are concerned not only about what this drastic cut will mean for the people seeking refuge here, but also for how it will affect their ongoing efforts to resettle refugees already here. Joining me in studio is Carmel Delshad. She is an editor and reporter at WAMU. Carmel, good to see you.

  • 12:01:11

    CARMEL DELSHADThanks for having me.

  • 12:01:13

    NNAMDILast year, Carmel, the United States capped refugee admissions at 30,000. Last month the White House announced that they're reducing the cap even farther to 18,000 for fiscal year 2020. What reasons have they given for these cuts?

  • 12:01:26

    DELSHADRight. So the White House really points to what they're calling the backlog at the southern border. And it's sort of being grouped in at the same time with the refugee admissions cap that the White House is saying it's just an untenable situation that a large amount of refugees can't be allowed in until the issue at the border is addressed. And the White House put out a fact sheet recently that called the issue at the border and the ongoing crisis there an overwhelming backlog that is unsustainable. So really the White House is sort of grouping the two issues one in the same and what they're calling America's responsible system for how it deals with immigrants.

  • 12:02:08

    NNAMDIIs this trend in decreasing the refugee admissions cap expected to continue? They seem to be setting a time limit on it.

  • 12:02:16

    DELSHADWell, if you look at the numbers and scaling back to under the Obama administration, it hovered around 70 to 85,000 in terms of admissions per fiscal year. Under President Trump that then went to 45,000 in 2018. As you mentioned, 30,000 in 2019. And 2020 is 18,000. So if you talk to refugee admissions advocates they'll say that this is definitely a pattern that they're seeing under the Trump administration that they're increasingly getting worried about, because there are a lot of factors at play. And it's their belief that if things continue this might be the end of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program.

  • 12:02:55

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Ruben Chandrasekar, Maryland Director of the International Rescue Committee. Ruben Chandrasekar, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:04

    RUBEN CHANDRASEKARThank you so much for the invitation.

  • 12:03:06

    NNAMDIAs I mentioned, you run the Maryland operations for IRC, the International Rescue Committee. First, what does the International Rescue Committee do and what does your average day look like in Maryland?

  • 12:03:18

    CHANDRASEKARWell, the International Rescue Committee is a humanitarian organization that provides humanitarian assistance to people, who are forcibly displaced across the world. And we work in about 30 different countries and in 25 cities in the U.S. So abroad, you know, we help refugees, who are displaced to help them get on their feet by providing them with food, clothing, shelter and other services. In the U.S., we work as a refugee resettlement agency and over the last 40 years we've helped to resettle approximately 400,000 refugees in the U.S. And when refugees arrive with the permission of the U.S. government we are notified. And every year we provide them with a set of services to get them housing, education, employment, so that they could rebuild their lives in the U.S.

  • 12:04:18

    NNAMDIGot it. What most concerns you about the cap on refugee administration?

  • 12:04:24

    CHANDRASEKARWell, you know, refugee resettlement is a lifeline that the U.S. provides for people who are fleeing violence and persecution. And this is particularly so now when we have over, you know, 20 million refugees who are displaced on the planet. It's enjoyed -- the resettlement program has enjoyed historical bipartisan support precisely, because it exhibits key values that the U.S. holds dear. And that is providing protection to those who are fleeing violence and persecution. And I feel that retracting from this space would send a wrong message on multiple fronts.

  • 12:05:14

    CHANDRASEKAROn the one hand, further reductions will only widen the crisis and its human impacts on women, men, and children, who are in desperate need of a safe haven. It will continue to keep families separated. And it also sends a very troubling signal to U.S. allies on the frontlines, who are responding to the largest displacement crisis in history. So, you know, we feel that the current policies are detrimental on all those fronts.

  • 12:05:46

    NNAMDIBeyond the humanitarian concern, there has also been a very real financial consequence for organizations like yours. Tell us about that.

  • 12:05:54

    CHANDRASEKARWell, as Carmel had mentioned with the drastic reductions in refugee resettlement numbers there have been over 110 refugee resettlement offices across the nine refugee resettlement agencies that have closed over the last three years largely, because of this reduction. But I think perhaps more important than that what really concerns me is the impact that this has on the lives of the clients we serve. Over 60 percent of the refugees we serve are being reunited with family members, who are already here. And with the slow termination of this program you have, you know, hundreds if not thousands of former refugees, who are living in the U.S. who are now very worried that they will not be able to see their children, who are stuck abroad or a spouse or a parent. And that's really a heartbreaking consequence of this policy.

  • 12:07:00

    NNAMDIHere now is Kenneth in Arlington, Virginia. Kenneth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:04

    KENNETHHi. This is Ken. I'm with NOVA Friends and Refugees and One Journey. In response to the question, I wanted to say it's a humanitarian issue and a political issue. Humanitarian because it's the right thing to do to welcome refugees, and I totally agree with what was just said about the heartbreaking problems it's creating for refugees already here. But it's also political because welcoming refugees is an economic plus for the United States, as the federal government's own workers said refugees contribute billions more to the federal government than they cost. And it's shameful what's going on. I was one of the ones arrested yesterday at the Capital protesting this. So I feel very strongly about it.

  • 12:07:53

    NNAMDIKenneth, thank you very much for your call. Ruben, can you talk a little bit more, expand on what Kenneth says in terms of the economic impact of this. How does it affect the community at large?

  • 12:08:04

    CHANDRASEKARYes. I'd say two quick points. One just to reinforce what was just said. The current administration when they came into office conducted a study to figure out the cost of refugee resettlement to the U.S. And that report indicated that over a decade refugees generated $63 billion more in revenue for federal, state and local governments than the U.S. spent on welcoming them. So there's very clear evidence of that. Secondly, you know, what we've found in working with employers in Maryland, for example, and we have over 150 employer partners, they really value the work ethic that refugees bring into the workplace.

  • 12:08:52

    CHANDRASEKARYou know, I'm a father of a 10-year-old son. And I always say that, you know, if I had to flee my country and live with my son in a place where I didn't have access to basic food, clothing, shelter, education and then had the opportunity to come to the U.S. and work and pay my bills, how motivated do you think I would be to take care of my son and make sure that he gets to school and succeeds? And it's this passion to rebuild one's life that employers see in our clients. And the slowdown in refugee arrivals has really hurt many of the businesses that we've partnered with historically. They are now calling us and saying, hey, you're unable to, you know, supply me with the talent that I need to run my business? And so this is a very real consequence in the local economy.

  • 12:09:46

    NNAMDIGot it. Carmel, which countries did the majority of refugees come from in recent years? What communities are these cuts expected to affect the most?

  • 12:09:54

    DELSHADYeah, I mean, people are coming from all over the world. The U.S. admits refugees from dozens of countries around the globe. In the last couple of fiscal years, refugees mainly came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Ukraine and other countries. And really if you look at the decrease in admissions and aligning it with the 2017 executive order on admissions from several primarily Muslim countries, you're seeing a sharp decrease in people coming from Syria, for example, where there's an ongoing humanitarian crisis there and an ongoing war there. And you're really seeing this playout on the ground here and locally at resettlement agencies in communities like the IRC and happening across the world even before people get here.

  • 12:10:39

    DELSHADSo sometimes people can see that this is something affecting people on the ground and is visible and tangible to them here, but it's also kind of invisible if you think about the folks, who are not even getting to this point. The process takes two years for people to be vetted. And there are people who are waiting in limbo.

  • 12:10:58

    NNAMDIHere's Marybeth in Washington D.C. Marybeth, your turn.

  • 12:11:01

    MARYBETHHi. I'm calling, because I'm concerned. I know there's lots of people that are concerned about immigration. But we also have policies around the world that have been making situations untenable for people to continue to live. And so, for instance, right now we have the situation on the border with Turkey and Syria. And so we're causing people to flee from their homelands. And at the same time we're closing our borders and not living up to the ideals and principles that I was taught in grade school about what this country stood for. So it seems to me that it's a huge disconnect, and it concerns me in terms of really undermining what this country has stood for for generations.

  • 12:11:59

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Care to comment on that, Ruben? I mentioned earlier whether or not people thought this was a political issue or a humanitarian one, obviously there's a relationship.

  • 12:12:09

    CHANDRASEKARAbsolutely. You know, one cannot disassociate U.S. foreign policies abroad with the forced displacement crisis. And I think as the caller indicated just what's happening now in the border region of Turkey and Syria is a prime example of that. You know, hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced as a result of the current administration's policy to withdraw its peace keeping force from the area. And I think historically one could make a lot of connections between U.S. policies abroad and people being displaced. Iraq certainly comes to mind. We have resettled, you know, thousands of Iraqis many of whom actually worked as interpreters with U.S. troops to help rebuild the country particularly after the initial period of conflict. And many of them were then targeted as a result of that, and in addition hundreds if not millions of Iraqis were displaced by that conflict.

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Ruben Chandrasekar is the Maryland Director of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:13:31

    CHANDRASEKARThank you very much.

  • 12:13:32

    NNAMDIAnd Carmel Delshad is an editor and reporter at WAMU, who we'll be hearing a lot more from in terms of the immigration reporting you hear from on this station. That's something we'll be talking about later. Carmel, good to see you.

  • 12:13:43

    DELSHADThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:13:44

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, we'll dig into how the gun control debate is shaping up on the campaign trail in Virginia in the second installment of our Virginia Votes series. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.


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