The White House is considering a second sharp reduction in the number of refugees who can be resettled in the United States, picking up where President Trump left off in 2017 in scaling back a program intended to offer protection to the world’s most vulnerable people, according to two former government officials and another person familiar with the talks.
This time, the effort is meeting with less resistance from inside the Trump administration because of the success that Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser and an architect of his anti-immigration agenda, has had in installing allies in key positions who are ready to sign off on deep cuts.
Last year, after a fierce internal battle that pitted Mr. Miller, who advocated a limit as low as 15,000, against officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the Pentagon, Mr. Trump set the cap at 45,000, a historic low. Under one plan currently being discussed, no more than 25,000 refugees could be resettled in the United States next year, a cut of more than 40 percent from this year’s limit. It would be the lowest number of refugees admitted to the country since the creation of the program in 1980.
The program’s fate could hinge on Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. His department has traditionally been a strong advocate for the refugee program, but Mr. Pompeo is now being advised by two senior aides who are close to Mr. Miller and share his hard-line approach, according to the people briefed on the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal internal deliberation about a decision that has yet to be completed.
A White House official who also did not want to be identified declined to confirm or deny whether deep cuts to the program, including a cap of 25,000, were under consideration.
But the official implicitly made the case for substantially reducing refugee admissions. A “migration crisis” was gripping the country, the official said, and the administration was instead prioritizing asylum cases in which a person is already in the United States and claims a credible fear of returning home.
Refugees, by contrast, are generally people outside the country who have met that bar and are seeking resettlement in the United States.
“In determining an appropriate refugee ceiling for 2019, the administration will consider the entire humanitarian caseload, legal and illegal — including asylum-seeking refugees, non-asylum seeking refugees and other categories such as special immigrant juveniles, unaccompanied alien minors, temporary protected status and other related programs,” the official said in a statement, provided on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were continuing.
The official noted that there was a backlog of 700,000 asylum cases, asserting that “most asylum seekers are illegal immigrants,” and that there were high costs and “enormous security challenges” in admitting people to the United States on humanitarian grounds.
“Far more people can be assisted, and much more safely, through humanitarian aid and resettlement in or near their home countries,” the official added.
Mr. Trump has until September to officially settle on a number, which must be set by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, although the White House is supposed to inform Congress of its intentions in advance. The Daily Beast first reported that a reduction in the refugee resettlement cap was under consideration.
Another steep reduction in refugees would be the latest piece of a multipronged effort by the president — devised and driven in large part by Mr. Miller — not just to crack down on illegal immigration, but also to fundamentally change the face of legal immigration in America.
The approach would move away from a system that prioritizes diversity, family ties and providing protection for persecuted people and toward one singularly focused on merit and skills. The president’s periodic efforts to pressure Congress to enact such policies have gone nowhere, but he has used his executive power to make changes where he can.
The refugee resettlement process is one such area; under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president determines a ceiling for refugee admissions each year in consultation with Congress.
But this year, after 18 months in the West Wing and a record level of turnover in the administration, Mr. Miller has succeeded in surrounding himself with figures who may be more amenable to gutting refugee admissions.
Two of the three cabinet secretaries who pushed back last year — Rex W. Tillerson, the former secretary of state, and Elaine Duke, the former acting secretary of homeland security — have been replaced with officials who have worked hard to show their loyalty to the president: Mr. Pompeo and Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security and an ally of John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, who once said privately that his ideal refugee cap would be somewhere between zero and one.
Officials at the National Security Council who were considered at odds with Mr. Miller’s efforts to cut the refugee program have also left or been forced out, the former officials said. And two men who are close to Mr. Miller and share his restrictionist views on immigration have been named to senior positions at the State Department: Andrew Veprek, the deputy assistant secretary of refugees and migration, and John Zadrozny, who recently moved from Mr. Miller’s inner circle at the White House Domestic Policy Council to the policy planning staff at the department.
Mr. Trump has nominated a third like-minded person, Robert Mortensen, to take the top refugee post at the State Department. But his work at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that pushes for less migration, and his anti-immigrant writings and messaging have incited outrage among refugee groups who say he should be disqualified. He has yet to be confirmed.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Proponents of scaling back the refugee program argue that they are merely acknowledging that the government does not have the capacity to vet and admit the numbers of refugees it has in the past.
They point to this year’s low numbers — the State Department said 16,230 had been resettled as of the end of June, putting the program on pace to admit only around 21,000 this year — as evidence, although those figures followed a year in which refugee admissions were frozen for months on end while officials conducted reviews that Mr. Trump ordered.
“This year, the people in the administration who lost that debate over the ceiling still wanted low refugee numbers, so in essence they have manufactured those low numbers, which become the new baseline,” said Barbara Strack, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security who was deeply involved in the process in 2017. “Several of the voices that I considered more moderate last year are not there any more, and in their place are more ideological people that are likely in the lowball camp.”
The White House is casting the debate over how many refugees to admit as a domestic political consideration, alluding in its statement to Democrats in Congress who the White House official said had “refused” to sign on to legislation to tighten immigration enforcement and prioritize “legitimate” asylum claims.
But throughout its history, the refugee program has been seen instead as a component of American foreign policy. It has allowed the military to protect translators in Iraq who have risked their lives to work for American forces, for instance, as well as others who have aided United States missions around the world. Resettlement of those groups has also slowed to a trickle this year.
Setting the cap at 25,000 would restrict the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the United States next year to fewer than the number admitted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a temporary halt to the program and new security restrictions drove those figures to their lowest since 1980.
Even then, President George W. Bush kept the program’s ceiling at 70,000 through the rest of his tenure, raising it to 80,000 during his final year in office.
Ms. Strack and others who have extensive experience with the refugee program argue that the crisis that White House officials cite is of their own making, following a deliberate policy not to prioritize refugees or install enough people to properly vet them and handle their cases.
“The issue is not either the need internationally or ability to process these refugees, it’s the administration’s will,” said Mary Giovagnoli, the director of Refugee Council USA, which represents a coalition of refugee resettlement and advocacy groups. “There’s a continued concentration of power in the hands of folks who don’t support a robust refugee program.”
The trend has prompted fear among lawmakers in both parties who are proponents of the program, which traditionally has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, but so far only Democrats have publicly complained.
In a letter to Mr. Pompeo in May, a dozen Democratic senators called Mr. Veprek’s appointment “just another troubling signal that this administration intends to continue dismantling our nation’s already crippled refugee program, with little regard for both the real-life and geopolitical implications of the policy.”