Syrian refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015.
The U.S. will accept a maximum of 18,000 refugees next year, breaking the record for the lowest cap on admissions for the third year in a row.
The State Department announced the new number — 12,000 under this year's limit — in a Sept. 26 report to Congress, adding that the administration also plans to process more than 350,000 asylum cases. Historically, there has been no official limit on the number of admitted asylum seekers.
While refugees and asylees must both prove a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion or social group in their country of nationality , refugees must have their paperwork approved before entering the United States. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, ask for protection when presenting themselves at a port of entry or submit an application from within the U.S.
In 2017, the latest year for which data on asylum seekers is available, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 119,303 defensive asylum cases (filed by individuals facing deportation) and 139,801 affirmative cases (initiated by individuals seeking protection from deportation).
In the years since, the country has experienced a growing influx of Central and South American asylum seekers, including teenagers and young children, crossing the southern U.S. border to escape violence and extreme poverty.
"The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number [sic] of refugees," the State Department said in a Sept. 26 statement. "Prioritizing the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense."
As of Sept. 20, with just weeks left in fiscal year 2019, the U.S. had admitted 29,818 refugees, coming close to the limit of 30,000 set last year by President Donald Trump's administration. The year before, when Trump had set the cap at 45,000, the country admitted just 22,491 refugees.
Immigration advocates decried the administration's move to again lower the cap, as well as a Sept. 26 executive order
from Trump implementing a policy for allowing states and municipalities to refuse refugees.
“The Trump Administration’s continual efforts to gut the refugee and asylum systems harkens back to the worst moments in our nation’s history," Todd Schulte, president of pro-immigration political organization FWD.us, said in a statement. “...Further, the idea that we would allow states or localities to block people who have been vetted and approved to live in the United States, from resettling in certain communities is wrong. Segregating immigrant populations will only serve to further divide our country along lines of race and ethnicity."
Meanwhile, USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli voiced support for lowering the cap.
“The proposed FY 2020 refugee ceiling, as outlined by the President, takes into account our existing and anticipated humanitarian workload on all fronts and fulfills our primary duty to protect and serve U.S. citizens," Cuccinelli said in a statement. "The professional, dedicated men and women of USCIS continue to faithfully administer our nation’s lawful immigration system and protect its integrity in order to ensure we provide humanitarian protection to the most vulnerable who meet the requirements under the law."