August is usually the surge month for the U.S. refugee admissions program to meet annual resettlement targets before the end of the fiscal year.
Last year, the U.S. resettled 13,255 refugees in August, the highest monthly number in a year that brought 85,000 refugees to the United States. In the last month of the Obama administration, the U.S. allowed in 1,318 Syrian refugees. In August, the Trump administration allowed only 48 Syrian refugees into the U.S., a 96 percent drop.
This August, just 913 refugees were resettled into the U.S., the smallest monthly total in 15 years, according to the State Department’s refugee database.
The religious identity of refugees resettled to the United States also shifted dramatically. In August 2016, the U.S. admitted an even split of 6,059 Muslims and 5,982 Christians: 46 percent to 45 percent. In August 2017, the U.S. admitted 220 Muslims and 573 Christians, 573: 24 percent to 57 percent.
A similar shift is in evidence across the first seven months of the Trump administration. Over that period, 51 percent of the 18,944 refugees resettled were Christians while 37 percent were Muslims. In comparison, for the same February-August period in 2016, 43 percent of the 54,186 refugees admitted were Christian and 47 percent Muslim (25,269).
So, while the Christian percentage grew from 43 to 51 percent under Trump, the Muslim percentage fell from 47 to 37 percent, while the overall number of refugees resettled fell 65 percent.
It’s too soon to know whether these numbers signal a long term trend. But it won’t come as a surprise if that turns out to be the case.
Back in December 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump galvanized his campaign when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He employed classic scapegoating tactics to whip up fear of refugees “pouring into our country” through the “Trojan horse” of the U.S. refugee resettlement program and of Muslims, whom he broadly conflated with terrorism.
A week into his presidency, Trump issued his first order to bar entry of people from seven predominantly-Muslim countries, suspend all refugee admissions, and cut by more than half the number of refugees admitted this year. That order would have barred Syrian refugees permanently and “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious based persecution” where theirs is a minority religion in their country.
That same day, he gave an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in which he lamented the “very, very unfair” treatment of Christians by the US refugee resettlement program.
After the courts blocked that order, he issued another that attempted to clean up its overtly prejudicial language and scale back on its severity, but two U.S. courts of appeal blocked that one as well. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the second order on October 10.
In truth, Trump hasn’t done Christian refugees any favors. The drastic cut in all refugee numbers means that in the first seven months of Trump’s presidency, the U.S. admitted 13,417 fewer Christian refugees than under Obama during the same seven months last year (9,716 versus 23,133), a 58 percent decrease.
But for Muslim refugees, the drop is even more of a gut punch. Muslim refugee admissions dropped 73 percent in the first seven months of the Trump administration (6,938 versus 25,269).
These resettlement numbers add to fears that under Trump, Muslim refugees fleeing persecution, including the world’s newest mass exodus, the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma, will no longer be able to look to the United States for rescue. For Muslims whose persecution can be tracked to their support for the United States, this will be particularly bitter.
Historically, the U.S. admissions program has responded to refugees persecuted because of their religious beliefs — recall Soviet Jews, Iranian Baha’is, and Christian “lost boys” of Sudan — but a refugee’s specific faith was less relevant to a person’s rescue than the seriousness of the threat they were under.
As the U.S. refugee program limps into a new fiscal year, one of the U.S.’s most effective tools for refugee protection appears to be at risk not only of being diminished but tarnished by prejudice as well.