By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two high-ranking Democrats in the U.S. Senate asked the Trump administration on Wednesday to provide information on any plans to cut refugee admissions to historically low levels, saying Congress had not yet been consulted as required by law.
"To date, we have not received a proposed refugee admissions plan for fiscal year 2018 or received any cooperation from your agencies in scheduling the refugee consultation," Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote in a letter seen by Reuters.
The letter was sent on Wednesday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.
"We request that the proposed refugee admissions report be transmitted to Congress promptly and that we immediately begin the process of scheduling the consultation," the letter said.
By law, the president is required to consult with members of Congress about the number of refugee admissions before the start of each fiscal year, which is Oct. 1.
A White House spokeswoman declined to discuss specific numbers but said the administration's approach to refugee resettlement would be guided by the "safety and security of the American People, the protection of U.S. taxpayers, and the application of U.S. resources in a manner that stretches our dollars to help the most people."
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment. The State Department and Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Since the U.S. Refugee Act was signed in 1980, the ceiling has never been set below 67,000 and in recent years has hovered around 70,000 to 80,000. The number of refugees actually admitted to the country can fall below the cap, and dropped to its lowest level in the fiscal year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks with only around 27,000 admitted.
(For a graphic on refugee admissions click on: http://tmsnrt.rs/2f5Y7Ds)
For fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30, former President Barack Obama established a cap of 110,000 refugees for permanent resettlement in the United States. After taking office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order lowering the maximum number to 50,000 for fiscal 2017, saying that more would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States."
"There have been a lot of signals that Trump has set his sights on a presidential determination of 50,000" for 2018, said Anna Greene, a senior director at the International Rescue Committee. "But we have been concerned that the more ideological wing of the White House is trying to drive that number to much, much lower."
The proposed RAISE Act, which the White House has endorsed, calls for lower immigration overall and a statutory limit on the number of refugees offered permanent residency to no more than 50,000.
Reports that the 2018 cap might be set below 50,000 raised alarm bells for Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
"By any measure, Donald Trump's reported consideration of a refugee ceiling of 50,000 or lower is extreme. But it is particularly reprehensible given the current global refugee and humanitarian crisis," said Democratic U.S. Representatives John Conyers, Jr. and Zoe Lofgren in a statement on Wednesday.
If the United States slashes refugee admissions, other countries could decide to do so as well, said Robert Carey, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.
"Lives will be lost, people will die. The people who are being resettled, they are the most vulnerable people," said Carey who left government in January and is working as a consultant.
"There is a running misperception that these are not thoroughly vetted individuals," he said. "These are the most thoroughly vetted individuals who will enter the U.S. under any status."
Groups that support lower levels of immigration overall say that the refugee resettlement program should be reevaluated.
"There are security concerns for refugees from some places and we also need to consider the cost of resettlement to communities where refugees are being resettled," said Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, which aims to limit immigration.
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