Updated 8:38 p.m. ET
President Trump has ordered that the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. in the coming year be cut nearly in half to 18,000, down from the administration's previous refugee ceiling of 30,000.
The limit represents the lowest number of refugees seeking protection from violence or political persecution allowed into the country since the modern refugee program was established in 1980.
The new cap, which marks the third time the Trump administration has dwindled the refugee limit, would also be a more than 80% decline compared with the last year of the Obama administration, when the U.S. allowed up to 110,000 refugees who were fleeing war, persecution and poverty to resettle in America.
Trump officials also announced that this year cities and states will have to provide written consent before accepting foreigners fleeing persecution, allowing localities to opt out of accepting refugees.
The administration argues it needs to devote its energy to dealing with a humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border, where tens of thousands of asylum-seekers are arriving every month.
According to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on Thursday, the U.S. will accept up to 5,000 people fleeing religious persecution, a maximum of 4,000 Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military and no more than 1,500 people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. An additional 7,500 migrants seeking family reunification and who have already been cleared for resettlement could be accepted.
The International Refugee Assistance Project's Betsy Fisher called the new limits a "shockingly low refugee admissions goal," warning that the policy "will all but ensure that people in need of safety will be left in dangerous conditions."
But senior administration officials defended the action by arguing that the focus needs to be on protecting those already in the U.S.
"At the core of the Trump Administration's foreign policy is a commitment to make decisions based on reality, not wishes," the State Department said in a statement announcing the new policy.
Administration officials also cited the nearly 1 million backlogged cases in immigration courts in the U.S., many of which are pending asylum cases.
"The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees," the administration said in a statement. "Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense."
Immigration rights advocates swiftly criticized the new asylum limit.
Daryl Grisgraber of Oxfam America called the announcement "immoral and un-American."
"In their senseless quest to keep foreigners out, this administration proves they are willing to abandon our nation's founding principles and outright reject human rights," Grisgraber said.
Separately, Trump issued an executive order to allow states and localities to refuse the resettlement of refugees in their communities, which is expected to face challenges in court.
Ryan Mace with Amnesty International USA slammed both moves.
"To cut the number of refugees the U.S. will accept to this low of a number reflects nothing more than this administration's attempts to further hate, division, and prejudice in a country that once valued dignity, equality, and fairness."
In justifying the order giving local governments the ability to turn away people seeking asylum, one senior administration official said state and local officials are best positioned to know the resources and capacities that have to devote to resettlement.
"So the administration wants to provide for closer coordination with them and a more clearly defined role for them in the process of selecting sites for initial resettlement," the official said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Trump administration is making it more difficult for immigrants seeking asylum to resettle in the U.S. Under new State Department rules, the number of refugees allowed into the country will be capped at 18,000 for the next year - that nearly cuts in half the administration's previous refugee limit. NPR's Bobby Allyn was on a call with Trump administration officials who briefed reporters on the announcement, and he's here with us now.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what President Trump ordered today. What does this mean for migrants fleeing persecution who hope to come to the United States?
ALLYN: Well, it means their odds just got a lot harder of making it in. The cap was cut nearly in half, to about 18,000 people, and that's going to affect, you know, the next fiscal year. And this year the Trump administration put the refugee ceiling around 30,000, so that's a pretty substantial reduction. And what it means is that, you know, there's going to be more fierce competition among asylum-seekers who have dreams of relocating to the U.S. And for some context here, that cut announced today is an 80% reduction compared to the refugee cap in the last year of the Obama administration.
SHAPIRO: Are certain groups of immigrants going to get priority under this new rule?
ALLYN: Yeah. So in the call with reporters, the administration said those fleeing religious persecution will be the ones that they will prioritize the most. You know, they said the administration has a real interest in religious freedom. And they also mentioned Iraqis who have helped the U.S. Those people will be given special status. And they mentioned a smaller group of migrants from Central America will be prioritized, but it's a really small group - just 1,500 of those.
SHAPIRO: What's the administration's justification for making this drastic cut?
ALLYN: So the administration says, you know, they're right now trying to tie asylum policy in the country to national security interests. And they said, you know, the federal government really needs to focus on the protection of people already in the country, rather than bringing in tens of thousands of migrants who want protection here.
And they said the U.S. immigration system is overburdened right now, and they cited a number, which is nearly 1 million. And that's the number of backlogged cases in immigration courts, and many of them are asylum-seekers. So they say, look - we've got to deal with all those problems in the U.S. here domestically before we welcome in more people.
SHAPIRO: What is the reaction from immigration rights groups?
ALLYN: So refugee advocacy groups like Oxfam America say this is further proof that the Trump administration is abandoning the country's founding principles of asylum law. You know, we're supposed to judge the merits of each person's claim individually - that's what asylum law says, and Oxfam says this is not abiding by that. And, you know, other groups like Amnesty International, you know, echoed that. You know, they took it even further, though. They said, look - restricting migrants seeking asylum to this low of a number? And here's the quote they said - quote, "attempts to further hate, division and prejudice in a country that once valued dignity, equality and fairness."
SHAPIRO: Is this going to be challenged in court?
ALLYN: You bet it will be. And, you know, critics of the new cap say it's an egregious violation of a federal law called the Refugee Act of 1980, and that basically granted asylum to anyone who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. And this 18,000 asylum-seeker limit, I must say, is the lowest cap ever since that 1980 law was passed.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.
ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.