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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Gets Refugee Numbers Wrong

Donald Trump keeps saying he “heard” the Obama administration plans to accept 200,000 Syrian refugees. He misheard, because that’s inaccurate.

The administration has said its goal is to accept 185,000 total refugees of all nationalities over the next two fiscal years. It is committed to accepting up to 85,000 in fiscal year 2016, including at least 10,000 Syrians.

Trump, the Republican Party’s leading candidate for president, made news at a Sept. 30 campaign stop in Keene, New Hampshire, for saying that he will seek to return all Syrian refugees for fear that they may include terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

During that same campaign visit, Trump also mischaracterized the administration’s refugee plans (at about 51:20 of his speech at Keene High School).

Trump, Sept. 30: You have the migration because Syria is such a disaster. And now I hear we want to take in 200,000 Syrians, right? And they could be, listen, they could be ISIS. I don’t know.

He repeated what he misheard two days later on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — not once but twice — when he was asked by cohost Mika Brzezinski (at about 7:30 into the interview) if he really meant that he would send back all Syrian refugees.

Trump, Oct. 1: It started, if you remember, Mika, with 2 or 3,000. Then it went up to 10,000 then 15. The last number I heard was 200,000. 200,000. I said now wait. This could be a terrible security breech because if these people come over here, and in fact, if they’re ISIS, we’re allowing, you know, tens of thousands of ISIS, potentially ISIS fighters coming into our country. …

So when I heard 10,000 and 3,000 a number, you know, from one of you — I’d say all right. But now we’re talking about 200,000. Obama is getting carried away again with this whole thing about immigration. And now we hear 200,000 and it could very well be ISIS.

Trump again cited the 200,000 figure on Oct. 3 at a campaign stop in Franklin, Tennessee.

But he’s wrong. The 200,000 figure Trump cites is more than the entire allotment of refugees worldwide that the administration hopes to accept over the next two years.

But let’s start at the beginning to explain the crisis and how the administration has responded to it.

As we have written before, more than 4 million Syrians have fled their home country because of a civil war, and the United Nations and fellow Democrats have pressured the Obama administration to increase the number of Syrian refugees that it plans to accept in fiscal year 2016, which began Oct. 1.

In a May 21 letter to President Obama, 14 Democratic senators urged the administration to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016. On Sept. 17, a group of 20 former senior government officials, including those from the Bush and Obama administrations, urged the president and Congress to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

But accepting 65,000 or 100,000 Syrians in fiscal year 2016 would mean a significant increase in the number of total refugees that the U.S. annually has accepted in recent years.

By law, the president each fiscal year sets a maximum number of refugees that the U.S. can accept, and that limit has been between 70,000 and 80,000 every year since at least fiscal 2004, as shown in Table 1 of a February report by the Congressional Research Service.

In fiscal year 2015, about 1,500 of the 70,000 refugees were from Syria, according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

In a compromise, the administration agreed to increase the ceiling on refugees and accept more Syrians, but not nearly as much as those Democrats wanted — and certainly not as many as Trump says he heard.

At a Sept. 20 press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the total number of refugees for fiscal year 2016 would be increased from 70,000 to 85,000, and at least 10,000 of those would be from Syria.

Kerry also said the administration’s goal is to increase the maximum number of refugees worldwide to 100,000 in fiscal 2017, which is what he also told members of Congress at closed meetings on Sept. 9. He didn’t say how many of the 100,000 refugees would be from Syria, but the administration does not need to make any determination on fiscal 2017 until Oct. 1, 2016.

Earnest, the White House spokesman, said an increase to 100,000 is unlikely without congressional approval. At a Sept. 10 press briefing, Earnest said that “ramping it up to 100,000 in the next fiscal year seems quite ambitious and probably not possible without a significant commitment of additional resources by Congress.”

All the president can do, for now, is set the ceiling for fiscal year 2016, and that’s what he did on Sept. 29. As required by law, Obama issued a presidential determination for fiscal year 2016 that officially set the maximum number at 85,000.

The 85,000 figure includes a maximum of 34,000 refugees from the Near East/South Asia region, which would include Syria. That’s an increase of 1,000 from fiscal 2015. The president also increased the unallocated reserve for fiscal 2016 from 2,000 to 6,000 — which can be another source for the administration to reach its stated goal of accepting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.

As for Trump’s claim, the numbers just don’t add up.

— Eugene Kiely