The Trump administration is considering further cuts to the annual cap on refugees as it diverts caseworkers to handle asylum claims from Central American families at the southern US border, a senior official said on Friday.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump, who campaigned on restricting immigration, has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the United States - decisions decried by human rights advocates and national security experts.
Last year, the administration capped the programme at 30,000 refugees, down from 45,000 people in 2018, which itself was the lowest ceiling since 1980. Despite the 45,000 cap last year, however, only 22,491 refugees were admitted, according to government data. In his last year of office, former President Barack Obama had set the cap at 110,000 refugees.
Behind the reductions were more stringent security protocols for citizens of 11 countries designated by the administration as presenting the greatest potential threat.
The State Department acknowledged that the screening and vetting procedures have resulted in fewer refugee admissions in 2018.
The tighter screening of refugees reflects one of Trump's signature issues. He imposed a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries as one of his first actions upon taking office in January 2017.
No decisions have yet been made by Trump on next year's refugee cap, the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Top administration officials have not yet met to discuss the cap, which is set each year by the end of September.
But the official said the administration was directing more resources to address the hundreds of thousands of mainly Central American families and children who have crossed the US border with Mexico during the past year, many seeking refuge in the United States.
"Our focus has been on dealing with the asylum influx (at the US border), and prioritising those cases," the official said.
Some administration officials have argued for the number to be 15,000 or fewer, according to two other administration officials. The officials were not allowed to speak publicly and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has already shifted refugee caseworkers to instead work on asylum cases, the official said - and will continue to shift more - reducing the number of refugee files that can be handled no matter where the cap is set. The official did not provide details on how many case officers had been reassigned.
The New York Times reported on Friday that top officials would consider options at a meeting on Tuesday - which could include effectively ending the programme, or severely slashing the cap and reserving the spots for a narrow group of countries.
Officials declined comment on what options would be considered and when that would take place, but said "a better use of taxpayer dollars to resettle people closer to home".
'This is immoral'
Nearly 30,000 vulnerable refugees overseas have already completed interviews for resettlement, said the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid group.
"Pulling the rug out from under refugees and the resettlement programme, as is reported, is unfair, inhumane, and strategically flawed for the United States," said Nazanin Ash, a vice president with the group.
On Wednesday a group of retired US military generals and officers sent a letter to the Trump administration, expressing their "grave concerns" about reports of further cuts to the refugee programme.
"Providing safe haven to the most vulnerable refugees - those that cannot be safe in their countries of first refuge - demonstrates America's humanitarian leadership and supports region stability by preventing premature returns back to war-torn or unstable countries," the generals said, pointing to the thousands of interpreters, translators and others who the US military relies on abroad.
Democratic presidential hopefuls were also quick to condemn the possible cuts.