Philadelphia officials urge support for refugees amid reports of impending ‘ban’

Protesters angered by President Donald Trump’s executive order that prevented refugees, visa and green card holders from entering the US chant pro-immigration slogans at Philadelphia International Airport.

In this file photo, protesters angered by President Donald Trump’s executive order that prevented refugees, visa and green card holders from entering the U.S., rally at Philadelphia International Airport. (Branden Eastwood for WHYY)

Philadelphia officials are urging action, amid reports that the Trump administration could lower refugee arrivals to nearly zero in 2020.

The proposal, which was first reported by the news site Politico, would represent an unprecedented turn of events since the U.S. began its modern refugee policy in 1980.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, called effectively ending refugee resettlement in this country “another senseless policy decision made by the Trump administration” and “a total refugee ban.”

Around 26 million people have been forced to flee their home countries due to war or persecution, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Eighty percent of those refugees live in countries neighboring the one they fled.

Since 1980, the United States has had a formal process to resettle some global refugees for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. The Trump administration has slashed those numbers, saying the U.S. cannot accept more refugees due to the number of people applying for asylum at the southern border and raising security concerns.

With an end to the refugee program reportedly on the table, Philadelphia officials and representatives from refugee resettlement organizations urged residents to call their local congresspeople in support of the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act, or GRACE Act.

The bill would set a permanent goal of 95,000 refugees welcomed to the United States each year, based on the annual average.

The executive branch currently has sweeping power to set refugee policy, in particular the ceiling on the total number of refugee arrivals to the country each year.

President Barack Obama pushed to expand that number, and to welcome refugees from Syria in particular. In 2015, he set the ceiling at 70,000 people. In 2016, the number went up to 85,000.

After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, U.S. refugee policy abruptly pivoted.

One of his first executive actions temporarily halted the U.S. refugee resettlement program, and when it restarted, new steps were added to the vetting process.

Trump also lowered the refugee ceiling each year, from 45,000 people in 2018, to 30,000 in 2019, the lowest official cap since the program formally started in 1980. In addition, the real number of people who arrive through that vetting pipeline has fallen short of the limit set during the last two years. The presidential determination is traditionally announced in October of the preceding year.

In the Politico report, administration officials discussed a range of new limits, ranging from 10,000 people to as few as zero, which refugee advocates say amounts to a total ban.

At Monday’s press conference, Pakistani refugee Ifran Ahmed stressed the importance of the program to individuals who flee.

If it ends, Ahmed said, “all the hopes will die, families will be separated, all the people looking for a shelter … who are looking for a sky, who are looking for mother’s lap will have lost all hope, they will not have any hope to live.”

Refugee resettlement agencies may also be forced to further scale back, or end their programs in favor of offering services for immigrants and refugees who have already arrived, if arrivals drop further.

Two local organizations, Nationalities Service Center and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania (HIAS PA), have helped about 5,000 refugees combined to come and live in the Philadelphia region in the last five years.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.