Backlog to keep refugee admissions low, immigration official says

Doctors held by ICE shocked by conditions at facility
US Customs and Border Protection
Central American immigrants awaiting legal proceedings are held in warehouse-like facilities inside holding pens made from chain-link fences.

Acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli suggested Thursday that the number of refugees the US will take in next year would remain low, given the backlog of asylum claims.

“I’d like to see us have a number low enough so we can handle asylum claims,” Cuccinelli told CNN in an interview.

During the Trump administration, the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the United States has been dramatically reduced — from 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 to 30,000 in fiscal year 2019.

The Trump administration floated the possibility of admitting zero refugees next year during a recent meeting with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, the Defense Department and other agencies, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Refugee and resettlement groups were outraged at the reports that the administration was considering lowering refugee admissions even further next year.

“It is horrifying to think that, by the stroke of a pen, the President can make a decision that will destroy a legacy of welcome that has been centuries in the making,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in a statement last month.

Cuccinelli told CNN he sees asylum and refugee admissions as part of the same “bucket” of humanitarian relief granted to people in the US. Refugees are granted relief outside of the US, whereas asylum seekers are already in the US.

“My focus right now is trying to manage the crisis at the border for us and keep those asylum backlogs from growing,” he said.

Cuccinelli spoke to CNN at a special citizenship ceremony for children in Washington, where he led them in reading the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance..

The refugee cap is determined by several departments and agencies, and approved by the President. Whereas the cap has often been viewed as a goal to be reached, the actual number of refugees admitted has fallen short. The administration had set the 2018 ceiling at 45,000 refugees, but only 23,000 were admitted, according to figures by the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. In 2017, the US reached its cap of 50,000 refugees, according to the State Department.

President Donald Trump is expected to make a determination on refugee admissions before the start of the next fiscal year on October 1, according to the State Department.

Cuccinelli left open the possibility that the refugee cap for fiscal year 2020 could again be 30,000.

The decisions on refugee admissions come as the Trump administration has initiated numerous policies taking aim at immigration, including restricting asylum, moving forward on a plan to return asylum seekers to Central America and expanding procedures to speed up deportations.

Cuccinelli also said in the interview that US Border Patrol agents are conducting credible fear interviews on the southern border to speed up the process for an asylum decision.

Traditionally, US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers conduct the interviews, wherein they will decide whether individuals have a “credible fear of persecution” that could make them eligible for asylum in the United States. But some Border Patrol agents are now being trained to handle the interviews.

“If the Border Patrol, some of their agents, are able to do this step themselves, it cuts one whole step out of the process and speeds us all along toward the tail end of that pipeline,” said Cuccinelli.

Record numbers of families and children have been arriving at the US-Mexico border in recent months, many of whom are claiming asylum upon arriving in the US. In June, more than 104,000 migrants came to the southern border, the highest number for that month since at least 2014.

The numbers are expected to be lower, but still high, for July, Cuccinelli said.

“If we had numbers low enough that we can run this pipeline of asylum and immigration at the border smoothly, we wouldn’t need Border Patrol agents to be looking at doing credible fear interviews,” he said. “But that’s not where we are with the crisis at the border.”

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.