WASHINGTON — The White House is considering a plan that would effectively bar refugees from most parts of the world from resettling in the United States by cutting back the decades-old program that admits tens of thousands of people each year who are fleeing war, persecution and famine, according to current and former administration officials.
In meetings over the past several weeks, one top administration official has proposed zeroing out the program altogether, while leaving the president with the ability to admit refugees in an emergency. Another option that top officials are weighing would cut refugee admissions by half or more, to 10,000 to 15,000 people, but reserve most of those spots for refugees from a few hand-picked countries or groups with special status, such as Iraqis and Afghans who work alongside American troops, diplomats and intelligence operatives abroad.
Both options would all but end the United States’ status as one of the leading places accepting refugees from around the world.
The issue is expected to come to a head on Tuesday, when the White House plans to convene a high-level meeting in the Situation Room to discuss at what number President Donald Trump should set the annual, presidentially determined ceiling on refugee admissions for the coming year.
For two years, Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration adviser, has used his considerable influence in the West Wing to reduce the refugee ceiling to its lowest levels in history, capping the program at 30,000 this year. That is a more than 70% cut from where it was when President Barack Obama left office.
The move has been part of Trump’s broader effort to reduce the number of both documented and undocumented immigrants from entering the United States, including numerous restrictions on asylum seekers, who, like refugees, are fleeing from persecution but cross into the United States over the border with Mexico or Canada.
Advocates of the nearly 50-year refugee program inside and outside the administration fear that approach would effectively starve the program, making it impossible to resettle even those narrow populations. The advocacy groups say the fate of the refugee program increasingly hinges on an unlikely figure: Mark Esper, the secretary of defense.
The senior military leadership at the Defense Department has been urgently pressing Esper to advocate for the refugee program. But current and former senior military officials said the defense secretary had not disclosed his intentions.