Frequently Asked Questions: Refugee Ceiling and the Presidential Determination

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In the coming month, the Administration will deliberate on adjusting the annual admissions ceiling for the year – a figure that, last year, was set at just 18,000: the lowest ceiling in the history of U.S. refugee resettlement. The consequences of this decision could be devastating for tens of thousands of refugees.

To help you better understand what’s at stake, LIRS has put together a list of answers to some of the most common questions about the refugee ceiling and the Presidential Determination.


The Presidential Determination: Who decides how many refugees the U.S. can admit?

The President consults with Congress and sets an annual ceiling for refugee admissions. This ceiling is called the Presidential Determination. 

By law this ceiling shall be “justified by humanitarian concern or otherwise in the national interest.” The Presidential Determination should be issued before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.


How is this decision made?

The President is required to consult with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. In this consultation, cabinet-level representatives must explain the intended number of refugees to be admitted and provide an analysis of their impact on the United States’ economy and foreign policy, among other things.

Congress adopted the consultation process to ensure that it could provide input into the resettlement process. Congress also plays a critical role in shaping resettlement through the annual appropriations process, by funding resettlement and integration programs that welcome refugees.


Why does the Presidential Determination matter?

This number is a ceiling – which means that the government is not obligated to reach the set number; in practice, the Administration can halt all refugee arrivals if the figure is met.

But this decision is about more than a number. Right now, the Administration is weighing the lives of thousands of men, women, and children who remain in harm’s way.

The Presidential Determination also provides a rough road map for refugee resettlement at the beginning of the fiscal year; and organizations like LIRS scale their capacity to resettle a certain number of refugees based on the ceiling and its corresponding appropriations.


How many refugees are admitted to the U.S. every year?

On average, since 1980, the annual Presidential Determination number has exceeded 95,000 persons. Since the year 2000, Presidential determinations have ranged from a low of 27,131 (in the year after the 9/11 attacks) to a high of 110,000 refugees.

Although President Obama authorized 110,000 admissions for Fiscal Year 2017, President Trump later decreased that number to 50,000. Ultimately over 53,700 refugees were admitted in fiscal year 2017.

For Fiscal Year 2020, President Trump authorized 18,000 refugee admissions. As of September 1, however, only 8,600 refugees had actually been admitted, and it is likely that the final admissions numbers will not reach the 18,000 goal due to the pandemic–making this year the lowest for admissions in the history of the refugee program.


What are the consequences of decreasing the refugee ceiling?

Aside from the obvious moral implications of closing our doors to refugees who have fled persecution and fear for their lives, the consequences of decreasing the refugee ceiling will directly impact America – economically, culturally, and geo-politically.

With refugee arrivals at an unprecedented low, the communities and organizations that have formed around welcoming new Americans are feeling the repercussions. Economically, many small towns in America have come to rely on refugees as a key component of the local workforce; socially-speaking, cities and universities are missing out on the vibrant cultural contributions of refugees; and politically, U.S. allies are beginning to question our shared commitment to addressing international humanitarian crises.


Does the U.S. have an obligation to admit refugees?

For many U.S. citizens, there is a moral obligation to help people in need, and that has been reflected in the U.S. government’s international humanitarian policies. But there is also a legal obligation.

The United States is a signatory to numerous international agreements to protect refugees and other vulnerable persons, and honoring those commitments is important to our international credibility. Because the U.S. has long been a world leader in refugee resettlement, it sets an example for other countries. If it reverses course, other countries are likely to do so as well.

The impact of the U.S. pullback is dramatic: in 2017, available global resettlement spots fell by 46% compared to 2016, and there was a 94% gap between resettlement needs and actual slots made available by all countries in 2017.


Does refugee resettlement pose a risk to national security?

Refugees are subject to intensive screening and review before they are admitted to the United States. Each refugee is hand-selected by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by security agencies in an exhaustive process that involves DHS, FBI, DoD, DoS, HHS, and the US intelligence community.

At the end of 2017, most refugees waited at least two years from the time of initial identification to arrival in the United States; that time has now stretched to 3 to 5 years because of new levels of processing and vetting requirements. There is no evidence that this extended time period has helped protect the United States and many experts believe it is unnecessarily exposing individuals to harm, separating families, and undermining U.S. interests abroad.

Even before the high level of vetting that exists today, the refugee program has historically been a low-risk admissions program. In fact, a Cato Institute study assessing risks associated with immigrants and terrorism found that no refugees admitted to the United States after passage of the 1980 Refugee Act have committed a lethal terror attack on U.S. soil.


Is resettling refugees a drain to the economy?

While there are some upfront costs associated with resettling refugees, numerous studies have found that refugees quickly begin to contribute more to the local economy than they receive in short-term federal assistance. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, a long-term study of the impact of refugee resettlement in the area found positive economic contributions through consumer spending, payment of state and local taxes, entrepreneurship, home purchases, and job creation.

A 2017 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that refugee households earned 77.2 billion dollars in 2015, resulting in 6.4 billion dollars in state and local taxes and 14.5 billion dollars in federal taxes. Big cities and small towns alike have often made refugee resettlement a priority as part of their plans for economic development because the investment in welcoming refugees nets a positive return in revenue, human capital, and cultural diversity.


What can I do to help?

Time is running out, but there’s still time to make your voice heard and urge your representatives to use their influence during the congressional consultation to advocate for a higher refugee ceiling.

LIRS has developed a Welcoming Refugees 2021 Toolkit to assist you in your advocacy efforts. Download it today!

2 thoughts on “Frequently Asked Questions: Refugee Ceiling and the Presidential Determination”

  1. In the post- World War 2 years that I was in junior and senior high school I knew refugees in my schools. Since then, I and others have welcomed and assisted refugees from southeast Asia. It is who we are as a nation, symbolized by the the Statue of Liberty.

  2. It is so disappointing to hear that the U.S. government is even considering this. Just last year, we started a non-profit called Abba’s House that is specifically set up to welcome and walk alongside refugees as they come to our country. It strives for all the virtues we hold up as a nation: hospitality, faith, friendship, care, and compassion for the vulnerable. We are saddened to think that those we yearn to help may end up languishing away in some U.N. camp with no hope or future. I pray for a change of heart and mind for those who are making this call.

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