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New Limit On Refugees Allowed Into The U.S. Is The Lowest Since 1980

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People fleeing persecution and violence will soon have a smaller chance of finding a new home in the United States. Yesterday, the Trump administration announced plans to lower the number of refugees that can be resettled in the U.S. next year to 30,000 people. It's the lowest ceiling since the refugee program was created in 1980. And right now, there are more refugees in the world than at any time since World War II. Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS, a group that helps resettle refugees in the U.S. Welcome to the studio.

MARK HETFIELD: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What was your first thought when you heard this announcement?

HETFIELD: I was shocked and yet not surprised. This administration has shown absolutely no commitment to refugee protection or to international leadership. The Trump administration has vilified refugees. So it was not a surprise that they lowered the ceiling.

SHAPIRO: Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this new cap, and I want to get your reaction to something he said yesterday.

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MIKE POMPEO: This year's proposed refugee ceiling must be considered in the context of the many other forms of protection and assistance offered by the United States. Moreover, the refugee ceiling number should not be viewed in isolation from other expansive humanitarian programs.

SHAPIRO: So he's talking about other immigration categories that protect people - $8 billion of overall humanitarian assistance. What do you make of this argument that the number of refugees should not be the only measurement of the U.S. commitment to vulnerable people?

HETFIELD: Well, the number of asylum-seekers in this country is not relevant because giving asylum to people who need protection is international law. It's a legal obligation. So we - that's just simply not relevant to the number of refugees whom we invite to our country as an exercise of sharing responsibility with other countries. And this is also - the secretary has to remember this is still the lowest number in history, period, at a time when the needs are the highest in history.

SHAPIRO: But you could also argue the U.S. is helping people in refugee camps that are in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon. The U.S. is giving aid in Syria to places that might be under siege. The U.S. is helping in other ways.

HETFIELD: The U.S. is helping in other ways and has always helped in other ways. Refugee resettlement has always been a part of a larger strategy to help refugees where they are. But part of doing that is to demonstrate to countries of asylum that we have skin in the game, that we're willing to accept their refugees as well and do more than just give money.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the numbers per capita, the U.S. has never been a world leader on refugee resettlement compared to countries like Germany or Sweden. How important is the American role as a model to other countries in the world of whether or not to accept refugees?

HETFIELD: Well, the U.S. actually has always been the leader in refugee resettlement.

SHAPIRO: In absolute numbers but not as a portion of the population.

HETFIELD: Absolutely - not as a portion of the population. But this year, it looks like even in absolute numbers we will slip behind Canada, a country that is one-tenth of our size. That sends a very, very bad message. We are really abdicating our leadership in this area.

SHAPIRO: President Trump has been very consistent about his view on refugees since the time of his presidential campaign. At what point does an organization such as yours say, look; this administration is not interested in pursuing an agenda that we support, let's put our energy and resources elsewhere?

HETFIELD: It's the mission of my organization to help refugees, to assist refugees - period. We assist them overseas in their countries of first asylum. We help asylum-seekers here in the U.S. And we welcome refugees who are resettled here. And we are going to keep doing that because we recognize that refugees are an incredible asset to this country. They have invented Google. A refugee was my wife's oncologist and helped treat cancer and saved her life. And they also own businesses that employ American citizens. They have made incredible contributions, and that's something that my organization is not going to forget, even if the Trump administration does forget that.

SHAPIRO: Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. Thanks for coming in to the studio today.

HETFIELD: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.