By Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) - President Donald Trump's administration has announced plans to let only 15,000 refugees resettle in the United States in the 2021 fiscal year that began on Thursday, setting another record low in the history of the modern refugee program.
The U.S. State Department said late on Wednesday the ceiling reflects the Trump administration's prioritizing of the "safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic." Trump, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has taken a hard line toward legal and illegal immigration during his presidency, including slashing refugee admissions every year since taking office in 2017.
The Trump administration has said that refugees from war-torn regions should be resettled closer to their home countries and that the United States extends asylum to thousands of people through a separate process.
Critics have said that the United States under Trump has abandoned its longstanding role as a safe haven for persecuted people and that cutting refugee admissions undermines other foreign policy goals.
The refugee cap was cut to 18,000 in the 2020 fiscal year that ended on Wednesday, and only 11,814 refugees were resettled, according to the latest government figures, as increased vetting by the Trump administration and the coronavirus pandemic slowed arrivals.
U.S. presidents typically set yearly refugee levels around the Oct. 1 beginning of each fiscal year. Under U.S. law, the president must consult Congress before finalizing the annual number of refugees it plans to accept, but the determination is ultimately set by the White House.
The 2021 plan lays out specific allocations, including 5,000 slots for refugees who suffered or fear persecution on the basis of religion, 4,000 slots for refugees from Iraq who helped the United States, and 1,000 slots for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That leaves 5,000 for all others.
Even though 4,000 slots were allocated for Iraqis affiliated with the United States during the 2020 fiscal year, only 123 had been resettled as of Sept. 25, according to government figures.
A law called the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern U.S. refugee resettlement program. The cap set for refugees in the subsequent four decades has never been as low as the one planned for 2021. Before President Barack Obama left office, he set the cap for fiscal year 2017 at 110,000 refugees, but Trump slashed that in half soon after becoming president.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 a year if he defeats Trump. Advocates have said the refugee program could take years to recover after Trump-era reductions.
Tens of thousands of refugees are in the pipeline for arrival to the United States, many with applications far along in the approval and vetting process.
Krish Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps resettle recently arrived refugees, wrote on Twitter that the Trump administration's cuts represent "a complete abdication of our moral duty and all that we stand for as a nation."
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel and Will Dunham)