The United States government announced on Thursday that it will cap the annual number of refugees admitted at 18,000 – by far its lowest ceiling in 4 decades. That action both shows a lack of compassion for the victims of armed violence and persecution and abdicates US leadership and support for countries struggling to cope with refugee crises.

Protesters in Lafayette Park on January 29, 2017, outside the White House, demonstrate against President Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admissions and barring entry of travelers from seven Muslim majority countries.

© 2017 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

The Trump administration’s action turns a cold shoulder to countries on the front lines of conflict, many of which are close US allies and bear the burden of caring for and protecting the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees.

Even at its most robust, US refugee resettlement only directly benefits a small fraction of the world’s 26 million refugees. But when used strategically, and in combination with humanitarian assistance and technical support, it can have enormous benefits beyond helping the relatively few people rescued.

The US refugee resettlement program has traditionally aimed to identify the most vulnerable refugees, often those who are not only persecuted in their home country but also unwelcome in the country of first arrival, such as members of religious minorities or LGBT people. 

The US program also responds to US citizens and permanent residents who petition on behalf of their close relatives who are refugees. And, dating back to the Vietnam War era, US resettlement has identified refugees persecuted because of their connections and associations with the United States. 

The 40 percent drop from this year’s admission cap is accompanied by an executive order that would require US states and localities to consent, in writing, to resettling refugees within their borders. Telling them they can say “Refugees Unwelcome” is a gratuitously nasty gesture, since state and local authorities aren’t about to set up checkpoints and roadblocks to prevent refugees from coming in.

The indifference to humanitarian realities worldwide is matched only by the small-mindedness of the Trump administration’s willingness to stoke and pander to xenophobic prejudices.