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13.12.2017 | Von:
Casey Tran

Migration Policy Changes under the Obama Administration and in the First Year under the New U.S. President Donald Trump

Responding to Humanitarian Crises

The US has the largest refugee resettlement program in the world.[63] The President sets the quotas (in consultation with Congress and other government agencies) for the total number of refugees admitted each year into the US. In addition, quotas are set for specific countries or regions from which refugees are admitted.[64] During Obama’s second term in office, the ceiling for the total number of refugees admitted remained unchanged from 2013 to 2015 (see figure 4). It was not until 2016 that the ceiling increased to 85,000 (from 70,000) largely in response to the global refugee crisis, heightened by the growing number of Syrians fleeing violence and conflict.[65] According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s 2017 figures, over five million people have fled Syria for neighboring countries and beyond as refugees.[66] In face of pressure from the international community to accept their fair share of hosting refugees, the US announced in September 2015 that they would resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees [67], a target which they exceeded by accepting 12,587 refugees in the fiscal year (FY) of 2016. In total, 84,994 refugees were admitted in 2016. The top three countries that refugees came from were Democratic Republic of Congo (19 percent); Syria (15 percent); and Burma (15 percent).[68]

While the decision to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees received support from fellow Democrats, human rights groups considered the number to be low as they argue that the US has the capacity relative to its population and economy to accept a greater number.[69] Republicans condemned the decision and instead advocated for stronger border controls. They also stressed the need for heightened security measures to separate refugees from terrorists.[70] State governors in the US also expressed opposition, fearing that domestic security would be compromised over the possibility that terrorists would be able to enter the US.[71] The Obama administration however stressed that refugees were subjected to the highest level of security screens of any traveler to the US [72], with an average processing time of to two years.[73] For the FY 2017, the US planned to accept a ceiling of 100,000 refugees [74]; this number was later increased to 110,000 amidst humanitarian concerns.[75] While this ceiling set by the Obama administration would have propelled the US to undertake a greater role in refugee resettlement, the FY 2017 ceiling was reduced to 50,000 shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in January 2017. The Trump administration within their first month in office issued Executive Order 13769, also known as "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" to revise the ceiling but also charted the suspension of the refugee resettlement program, stopping refugee entry into the US for 120 days. Syrian refugees were further banned indefinitely. Moreover, the order instructed for the review and revision of the refugee resettlement program.[76] On July 12th, the US reached the 50,000 cap of refugee admissions.[77] It is expected that the number of incoming refugees will drop even further as Trump's administration has announced to admit only 45,000 refugees in 2018.

Figure 4: Refugee Arrivals in the USA Fiscal Years 2000–2015Figure 4: Refugee Arrivals in the USA Fiscal Years 2000–2015 (PDF-Icon Diagram for Download)
Meanwhile, the country’s northern neighbor Canada has seen an increase of refugee claimants since January 2017, with reports of increasing unauthorized border crossings along the Canadian-US border.[78] It is believed that most recent arrivals are Haitian nationals from the U.S. [79] who were granted Temporary Protection Status (TPS) [80] in 2010 but now are faced with the expiration of their TPS in January 2018, leaving them subject to deportation.[81]

Asylum Seekers from Central America

The Obama administration’s decision to increase the refugee ceiling for FY 2016 was also to address the large increase of Central American asylum seekers, specifically from the "Northern Triangle" region consisting of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.[82] This region has been hit with ongoing gang-related violence, political and economic instability as well as hardship from natural disasters – factors that have contributed to the continued flight of individuals and families.[83] In 2015, the US recorded the highest amount of affirmative asylum applications (estimated 83,000) received since 1996. During that year, a total of 26,124 persons were granted asylum either affirmatively or defensively, the majority coming from China (23.7 percent); El Salvador (8.3 percent); and Guatemala (8.0 percent). The number of children’s asylum claims also increased 112 percent from 2014; Guatemala and El Salvador were the main drivers.[84] According to the US Department of Homeland Security, Central Americans had exceeded Mexicans for the first time in the greatest number of apprehensions made along the southern border in 2014 and later again in 2016.[85] Moreover, unaccompanied minors and families now represented the primary groups trying to cross the southern border without authorization rather than single adults.[86]

Despite an earlier promise from Obama in 2009 to end family detention, a new immigration centre for families had opened in response to large numbers of arrivals from Central America.[87] In addition to this, critics have protested the tough enforcement of deportations of Central Americans during the Obama administration.[88] While the securitization measures of the Obama administration have been criticized, the administration did implement further efforts to address the region’s humanitarian crisis. One of these efforts was the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee program created in 2014 to allow qualifying minors in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala a safe and legal pathway to join family members legally authorized in the US instead of having to undertake a perilous journey.[89] In 2016, eligibility criteria for the CAM Refugee program was expanded to include additional family members of qualifying minors.[90] However, the Trump administration terminated the program in August 2017, cancelling more than 2,300 applications of refugee minors who were waiting for approval. Immigrant advocacy groups argue that the termination of the legal pathway will prompt minors to undertake the perilous journey as their only way to claim for asylum.[91]

Moreover, the Obama administration had announced a partnership with Costa Rica in 2016 to launch a protection transfer arrangement (PTA) that would also involve the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM). Under the PTA, the most vulnerable asylum applicants in the Northern Triangle region would be pre-screened by the US and the parties would coordinate the transfer of the applicants to Costa Rica for immediate protection as they wait for their refugee applications to be processed for resettlement in the US.[92]

Cuba and Bilateral Relations

Bilateral relations in addition to global humanitarian crises have helped shape US refugee policy. One example has been the elimination of the "Wet foot, dry foot" policy for Cuban refugees in January 2017 by the Obama administration. This policy had existed for over two decades, allowing Cubans who reached American soil without authorization to be entitled for legal residency while those intercepted at sea would be sent back. The policy is a remnant of the Cold War, originally implemented to accommodate the large number of Cubans fleeing from repression.[93] The elimination of this policy came as Obama sought to improve Cuban relations and ensure equal treatment among migrants while securing agreement from the Cuban government to accept ineligible Cuban asylum returnees.[94] The reaction to this change has been mixed. Supporters agree that migrants are not being treated fairly and recent Cuban migrants are coming to the US for economic reasons, not in fear of political persecution. However, critics assert that the removal of this policy will signal to dictators that the US condones human rights abuses. It is unclear whether the Trump administration will decide to restore the policy or not.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Resettlement in the United States," n.d.,
Refugee Council USA, "History Of The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program," n.d., http://www.rcusa.org/history/
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice on Syrian Refugee Admissions," last modified August 29, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/29/statement-national-security-advisor-susan-e-rice-syrian-refugee
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Syrian Regional Refugee Response," n.d. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice on Syrian Refugee Admissions," last modified August 29, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/29/statement-national-security-advisor-susan-e-rice-syrian-refugee
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions, "Refugee Processing Center, Summary of Refugee Admissions," last modified May 31, 2017, http://www.wrapsnet.org/s/Refugee-Admissions-Report-2017_05_31.xls
Gardiner Harris, David E. Sanger and David M. Herszenhorn, "Obama Increases Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000," The New York Times, last modified September 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/11/world/middleeast/obama-directs-administration-to-accept-10000-syrian-refugees.html?mcubz=0
Eric Bradner and Ted Barrett, "Republicans to Obama: Keep Syrian refugees out," CNN, last modified November 16, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/politics/republicans-syrian-refugees-2016-elections-obama/index.html
Abby Phillip, "Governors rush to slam door on Syrian refugees," The Washington Post, last modified November 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/16/governors-rush-to-slam-door-on-syrian-refugees/
Amy Pope, "How We're Welcoming Syrian Refugees While Ensuring Our Safety," The White House, last modified November 17, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/11/17/how-were-welcoming-syrian-refugee
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Resettlement in the United States," n.d., http://www.unhcr.org/resettlement-in-the-united-states.htm
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "FACT SHEET: Advancing Shared Values for A Better World," last modified September 23, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/23/fact-sheet-advancing-shared-values-better-world
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Presidential Determination -- Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2017," last modified September 28, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/28/presidential-determination-refugee-admissions-fiscal-year-2017
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States," last modified January 27, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states
Camila Domonoske, "U.S. Refugee Admissions Pass Trump Administration Cap Of 50,000," NPR, last modified July 12, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/12/536899605/u-s-refugee-admissions-pass-trump-administration-cap-of-50-000
Government of Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, "Asylum claims," last modified September 19, 2017, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/asylum-claims-made-in-canada.asp
Stephen Smith, "Surge in asylum seekers coming to Canada nothing new, community groups say," CBC News, last modified August 3, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/asylum-seeker-numbers-nothing-new-1.4233207
According to U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services, Temporary Protection Status (TPS) is assigned to a country when it is determined that the country’s conditions make it temporarily unsafe for its citizens to return or that the country does not have the ability to manage their return. The status grants the beneficiary temporary legal stay.
Maria Sacchetti, "For Haitians who came to U.S. after earthquake, another deportation reprieve," The Washington Post, last modified May 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/federal-officials-dhs-to-extend-temporary-protected-status-to-haitians/2017/05/22/d2796824-3ef5-11e7-8c25-44d09ff5a4a8_story.html?utm_term=.b015090a3428
Carol Morello, "Obama administration to expand number of refugees admitted to U.S.," The Washington Post, last modified January 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-administration-to-expand-number-of-refugees-admitted-to-us/2016/01/13/35613e74-ba0b-11e5-99f3-184bc379b12d_story.html?utm_term=.3385bbaa6667
Gabriel Lesser and Jeanne Batalova, "Central American Immigrants in the United States," Migration Policy Institute, last modified April 5, 2017, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-american-immigrants-united-states
Nadwa Mossaad, "Annual Flow Report 2016, “Refugees and Asylees: 2015," U.S. Department of Homeland Security, last modified November 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Refugees_Asylees_2015.pdf
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Press Secretary, "DHS Releases End of Year Fiscal Year 2016 Statistics," last modified December 30, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/12/30/dhs-releases-end-year-fiscal-year-2016-statistics
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, DHS Press Office, "Statement by Secretary Johnson on Southwest Border Security," last modified October 17, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/10/17/statement-secretary-johnson-southwest-border-security
Wil. S Hylton, "The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps," The New York Times Magazine, last modified February 4, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/magazine/the-shame-of-americas-family-detention-camps.html
Julia Preston, "U.S. Will Step Up Deportations, Focusing on Central Americans," The New York Times, last modified May 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/us/us-will-step-up-deportations-focusing-on-central-americans.html
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "In-Country Refugee/Parole Processing for Minors in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala (Central American Minors – CAM)," last modified August 16, 2017, https://www.uscis.gov/CAM
U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, "Expansion of the Central American Minors (CAM) Program," last modified November 15, 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/11/264332.htm
Mica Rosenberg, "U.S. ends program for Central American minors fleeing violence," Reuters, last modified August 16, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-minors/u-s-ends-program-for-central-american-minors-fleeing-violence-idUSKCN1AW2OZ
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, DHS Press Office, "U.S. Expands Initiatives To Address Central American Migration Challenges," last modified July 26, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/07/26/us-expands-initiatives-address-central-american-migration-challenges
Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Frances Robles, "Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas," The New York Times, last modified January 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/world/americas/cuba-obama-wet-foot-dry-foot-policy.htm
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by the President on Cuban Immigration Policy," last modified January 12, 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/12/statement-president-cuban-immigration-policy
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