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How A Reduced Ceiling On Refugee Arrivals Could Impact San Diego

Kris Arciaga
A sign at Catholic Charities in San Diego marks its refugee services building, Feb. 17, 2016.

This time last year, San Diego County was the number one destination for refugees, but as the fiscal year ends this month, that is changing.

Out of the millions of displaced persons across the globe, the president decides how many may come to the U.S. each year. For the second time since he took office, President Donald Trump is reportedly reducing that cap — this time to its lowest level in decades.

Although Trump has not officially announced it, Republican federal lawmakers such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia praised the proposed figure of 45,000.


"The Trump Administration’s refugee ceiling for the coming year maintains our nation’s generosity toward those in need, and importantly, ensures limited resources are used wisely and our citizens are protected in light of ongoing terrorist threats," Goodlatte said in a statement.

RELATED: House, Senate Judiciary Committee Members React To 45,000 Refugee Cap

Here in San Diego, Robert Moser, executive director of Catholic Charities, said the reduction will have a significant impact in the region, which has been a top resettlement site for years.

Guillermo Sevilla
Catholic Charities of San Diego Executive Director Robert Moser speaks about refugee resettlement with KPBS City Heights Reporter Tarryn Mento, Sept. 20, 2017.

Q: Describe to me the current state of resettlement in San Diego right now.


A: Well, it’s quiet as a result of the travel ban and federal policies regarding admissions. It’s not normally quiet this particular time. Usually August and September is the busiest time of the year because it’s the end of the fiscal year, but the federal ceiling on refugee numbers was reached many months ago, so right now it’s quiet.

Q: Why is the reduction of the annual refugee cap concerning to you?

A: Well, a number of reasons. One: people come as refugees for a reason. For safety, for freedom, so those individuals who aren’t coming as a refugee are in harm’s way in places around the globe. So for their well-being just in terms of knowing the conditions overseas, that’s always a concern. In terms of domestically, it’s all about the infrastructure and the capacity. When you have a system that’s been set up since 1980, so 37 years, to handle a certain number and you have the trained staff and the systems in place, when it goes down below a certain level, and particularly the levels being proposed, there will be a lot of resettlement programs across the country that will close. And so then that ability in the future, if there’s another large number of refugees coming in, we won’t have the system in place.

Q: At the end of last fiscal year (September 2016) there were lots of refugees coming in at once and this year it's completely different. Explain how refugee resettlement agencies had to respond to that and what they did when there was a surge across the country.

A: Last year the ceiling was raised by the previous administration to 85,000, so that was 15,000 more than we had normally done and they were all coming towards the end of the year so — not to in the context of the hurricanes we’re having now — it was a perfect storm in terms of large volume, large families, quick turnaround time, so agencies would hire new staff, work over time, get volunteers and community support to help out.

RELATED: Investigation: San Diego Refugees Face Housing Dilemma

Q: What’s going to happen to refugee resettlement agencies in San Diego?

A: In reality over the years, right after 9/11 for example, there were no refugees coming but at that particular time the federal government, the State Department saw the need to maintain the system and continued to provide the resources.

San Diego typically resettles about 3 to 4 percent of the national total, so whatever the total ceiling was we could get 3 to 4 percent. Now the reality is San Diego has always been a main source of resettlement in the country, and as other programs close down, maybe those refugees that are going to go someplace else may be channeled to maintain the infrastructure here.

The other aspect is we’re on the border. The refugees that are not being admitted, they still may show up on our border by other means seeking asylum.

Asylum-seekers can surrender at a port of entry, where they may be detained and wait until a judge decides their fate. If asylum is approved, they enter the U.S. and can access some refugee services. The president cannot set a cap on asylum.

How A Reduced Ceiling On Refugee Arrivals Could Impact San Diego
This time last year, San Diego County was the number one destination for refugees, but as the fiscal year ends this month, that is changing.