The issue has ignited intense debate within the administration, with officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Department of Defense opposing a precipitous drop.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is considering reducing the number of refugees admitted to the country over the next year to below 50,000, according to current and former government officials familiar with the discussions, the lowest number since at least 1980.
President Trump promised during his 2016 campaign to deny admittance to refugees who posed a terrorist threat. In his first days in office he took steps to radically reduce the program that resettles refugees in American cities and towns, capping the number admitted at 50,000 as part of his executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. That was less than half the 110,000 refugees President Barack Obama said should be admitted in 2016.
But in recent weeks, as the deadline approached for Mr. Trump to issue the annual determination for refugee admissions required by the Refugee Act of 1980, some inside the White House — led by Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s senior adviser for policy — have pressed to set the ceiling even lower.
The issue has created an intense debate within the administration, with Mr. Miller and some officials at the Department of Homeland Security citing security concerns and limited resources as grounds for deeply cutting the number of admissions, and officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Department of Defense opposing a precipitous drop.
No final decision has been made, according to the officials, but as the issue is being debated, the Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the administration to bar almost any refugees from entering the country while it considers challenges to the travel ban order. The court will hear arguments in the case next month.
Spokesmen at the White House and the departments of Homeland Security and State declined to discuss an annual figure, noting that it had not yet been finalized. By law, the president must consult with Congress and make a decision by the start of each fiscal year, Oct. 1, on the refugee ceiling.
Mr. Miller, the principal architect of Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, has been the most vocal proponent at the White House for reducing the number of admissions far below the 50,000 stipulated in the travel ban, at one point advocating a level as low as 15,000, the officials said. An aide to Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he was in the Senate, he has inserted himself in a policy process that is typically led by the State Department and coordinated by the National Security Council.
This year, the Department of Homeland Security is dominating the discussions, and the Domestic Policy Council, which reports to Mr. Miller, has coordinated the process. In a meeting on the topic at the White House on Tuesday, Homeland Security officials recommended a limit of 40,000, according to officials familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
Should Mr. Trump move ahead with scaling back refugee resettlement, it would be the second time in as many weeks that he has used executive authority to reduce the influx of immigrants. Last week, he moved to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era program that grants protection from deportation to undocumented people brought to the United States as children, in six months. But he called on Congress to enact a law to address those immigrants’ status.
One senior administration official involved in the internal debate over refugees described the move to curtail admissions as part of a broader rethinking of how the United States deals with migrants, based on the idea that it is more effective and affordable to help displaced people outside the nation’s borders than within them, given the backlog of asylum seekers and other immigrants already in the country hoping to stay.
Still, the prospect of capping refugee admissions below 50,000 has alarmed people both inside and outside the administration, given the refugee crisis unfolding around the world and the United States’ history of taking a leadership position in accepting people fleeing violence and persecution.
“When you get down to some of the numbers that are being talked about, you get down to a program of really nugatory levels,” said David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who is president of the International Rescue Committee, said in an interview. “It’s not an exaggeration to say the very existence of refugee resettlement as a core aspect of the American story, and America’s role as a global leader in this area, is at stake.”
Mr. Miliband’s group is one of nine organizations — most of them religious groups — that work with the government to resettle refugees in the United States and are pressing for the admission of up to 75,000 refugees over the next year.
Two administration officials said those pushing for a lower number are citing the need to strengthen the process of vetting applicants for refugee status to prevent would-be terrorists from entering the country. Two others said another factor is a cold-eyed assessment of the money and resources that would be needed to resettle larger amounts of refugees at a time when federal immigration authorities already face a yearslong backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.
Unlike refugees, who apply from outside the country for protection, those seeking asylum have already arrived in the United States fleeing persecution.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research organization that advocates less immigration, said the program represents a poor allocation of limited resources, and should be reserved for the most extreme of cases.
“There’s no real, moral justification for resettling large numbers of refugees,” said Mr. Krikorian, adding that his group’s research shows that resettling a refugee from the Middle East in the United States costs 12 times as much as what the United Nations estimates it would cost to care for the person in the region. “Refugee resettlement is just a way of making ourselves feel better. ”
But throughout its history, the refugee resettlement program has had broad bipartisan support across administrations; many Republicans regard it as a tool to fight communism or extremism around the world, while Democrats see it as a means of helping the neediest.
The Obama administration toughened screening procedures in recent years even as it sought to streamline the process to embrace more refugees, and the Trump administration has reviewed and further enhanced security since the president’s travel ban, which is currently being weighed by the Supreme Court.
Officials from the resettlement groups caution that lowering the ceiling will sap their ability to help refugees for years to come.
Bill Canny, the executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the largest American resettlement agency which placed about 20,000 refugees last year, said his organization has already had to cut staff given Mr. Trump’s initial order and would likely be forced to shutter entire programs if the numbers fell further.
“The United States has provided tremendous leadership in this area over many years and has encouraged other countries to accept more refugees, and those have been largely moral arguments on the part of our country, talking about duty and ‘love thy neighbor’ and helping those in need,” Mr. Canny said. “By diminishing the numbers in the way that they’ve discussed, we diminish our capacity to do any of that.”
Since the Refugee Act of 1980, which codified the president’s role in determining a ceiling for refugee admissions, the average limit has been about 94,000 worldwide. It has slipped below 70,000 just once, in 1986, when Ronald Reagan set it at 67,000.