US Refugee Laws and Policy in 2020

There have been significant changes in the United States’s refugee laws and policy during President Trump’s time in office. Despite the increasing number of refugees worldwide, the Trump administration has taken drastic measures to cut back on the amount of refugees admitted into the U.S. In addition, increased security vetting enactments have increased the wait time for refugees to come into the United States.

In January of 2017, refugees and others alike received a shock when President Trump signed an executive order halting the U.S. refugee admissions program for 120 days. The administration also stopped Syrian refugees from entering the country, and lowered the refugee admissions ceiling from former President Obama’s 110,000 to 50,000. When the program finally resumed, nationals from the 11 countries of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen faced a 90 day travel ban. Despite being challenged in the courts, the order was ultimately upheld.


In 2017, the U.S. settled fewer refugees than the rest of the world for the first time. This was not due to a lack of refugees, however. It is estimated that there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in 2017, with Syria, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen being some of the most volatile countries during that time. President Trump consulted with Congress to set the ceiling for refugee admissions, and the State Department and Department of Homeland Security worked to assess the ceiling’s viability. In 2017, the refugee admission ceiling was lowered to 50,000 after going no lower than 70,000 during President Obama’s second term in office. During the Trump administration, the ceiling was reduced every year until it was set at 18,000 in 2020.


In addition to lowering the ceiling, refugees must fulfill specific criteria in order to have a chance to come into the United States. To begin, there are three categories under which a person can seek to be a refugee in the US. The first is they must have “compelling persecution needs,” with coming to the U.S. being a last resort. The second criteria is that they belong to a group of “special concern” to the United States, such as people from Iraq, Burma, or the former Soviet Union. Finally, they could be relatives of refugees who have already settled in the U.S.


If a refugee meets one or more of these points, they are then subject to intense interviews proving that they meet the status of refugee, and have a case of “well-founded fear” of returning to their home country. There are several reasons why a person may not pass including health, criminal activity, security, polygamy, misrepresentation of facts, smuggling, and more. While some of these measures may already have been in place, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added additional security screenings in 2018 for people coming from countries deemed high risk.


By adding these measures, the DNS increased the time it would take for refugees to be accepted to their new home. In 2016, it took between 18 and 24 months to complete the process. Added security procedures that increase the waiting time can make a dramatic difference considering the circumstances a refugee may be facing.


It is important to be aware of this information as a resident of New York. In 2018, New York State received the fifth highest number of refugees in the United States. In that year, 46.5% of refugees came from Africa, 16.9% from Near East/South Asia, 16.3% from East Asia, 16.1% from Europe, and 4.2% from Latin America/Caribbean. In Broome County alone, we are home to refugees from Iraq, Ukraine, Vietnam, Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Kurdistan. We will spend the rest of the week highlighting these populations to give our community the chance to educate themselves and embrace our community’s background. Be sure to check in for the rest of our World Refugee Day posts.



“An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy.” American Immigration Council, 1 Apr. 2020, www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/overview-us-refugee-law-and-policy.


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