Forget the lawsuits -- thousands of refugees already face a locked door

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Story highlights

  • David Andelman says the president's executive order still sharply limits refugees
  • Trump's refugee policies will hurt America's image worldwide, he writes

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Regardless of any further court action on President Trump's executive order on immigration, refugees to the United States are quickly running out of runway.

One of the order's provisions that so far is all but ignored slashed by more than half the total number of refugees from any country and any religion who can be allowed in the United States this year. Two-thirds of that sharply-reduced number have already been admitted.
Last September, President Obama raised the annual global refugee quota the United States would accept, from 85,000 that had prevailed for several years to 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year that lasts from October 2016 through September 2017.
But President Trump's executive order dropped that number to 50,000. Until this order was issued, however, the pace that would have led to 110,000 was maintained. So, through early February, some 30,000 have already been admitted, leaving 20,000 to be allowed in through September before the doors slam on everyone.
"The TRO we obtained does not affect this cap," Peter Lavallee, the spokesman for the Washington state attorney general, who sought the temporary restraining order from federal district court judge James Robart, said in an email. "It does not apply to section 5(d) where the change in the cap is found."
Indeed, refugee organizations have received a written warning from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the State Department that it "intends to reduce weekly arrivals based in a program of 50,000 arrivals in the future."
Even if the President rewrites and reissues the executive order while the fate of the previous version winds its way through the courts, it's unlikely that this ceiling of 50,000 -- barely 15,000 families -- will be raised.
"All of us in refugee resettlement have been deeply concerned about this," said Chris George, executive director of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. "But no one has challenged the President's authority in setting a ceiling on the number of refugees overall allowed into the country each year."
At the present pace, barely 2,500 per month can be granted entry -- from all countries and all religions -- before this year's new quota is exhausted.
As it happens, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, "The (Ninth Circuit) Court of Appeals did not address one way or the other the overall refugee cap." Which should mean that it stands untouched in the executive order.
Europe, too, has slashed its quotas, but they are still substantially above the US number.
The continent as a whole has agreed to accept 160,000 Middle East refugees this year -- over and above admissions from the rest of the world. Germany, a nation with a population barely a quarter that of the United States, will be taking 40,000 from this one region alone. Two years ago, at the height of the refugee flight from the chaos and bloodshed in Syria, Germany accepted more than 800,000 refugees from that conflict.
By contrast with American numbers, France far outpaces the United States in welcoming foreigners into their territory (exclusive of tourists). In 2015, the last full year for which statistics are available, 212,365 foreigners were allowed to enter France with "titres de sejour."
Last year, under the "special quota" of 160,000 across Europe reserved for refugees from the violence and mayhem in Syria, the top three receiver countries -- Germany, France and Spain -- were allotted 90,208 refugees, or nearly twice the Trump annual figure for the entire world. Yet the population of all three countries is 193 million, less than two-thirds of the population of the United States.
While there have been some isolated cases of criminal activity in Germany and France by some of these refugees, the major terrorist attacks were undertaken by groups whose roots had long been planted in these locations.
Meanwhile, the Trump executive order itself is already having some other bizarre consequences.
Last week, 12 days after the order was signed, the State Department put out a message that "congratulates the people of Somalia on the successful conclusion of their national electoral process," adding that "this transition represents an important step forward for the country." Congratulations on your democracy, yes, but don't bother showing up in America -- any of you.
Last year's biggest refugee intake to the United States didn't come from Syria or Somalia, but from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which sent 16,370 refugees to the United States in the year ending last September.
Yet the DRC, a target of Islamist terrorist operations of ISIS-linked Boko Haram, has been identified as the seventh-most dangerous country in the world. Five of the other six (absent Afghanistan) are on President Trump's banned list. But not the DRC.
Even if President Trump decides to scrap his earlier executive order and write an entirely new one, that likely won't change this horrific reality -- namely that we are on the precipice of shutting out refugees worldwide who are subject to the quota ceiling. This would include refugees from places like Burma, which sent more refugees to the United States over the past decade than any other nation, but where Islamic terrorism is all but non-existent.
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President Trump really needs to scrap America's entire refugee system and start all over with a deeper understanding of who and what is involved. A yearly cap of 50,000 is scarcely calculated to accommodate either America's needs for foreign talent and expertise or the most basic humanitarian goals of the nation's democratic system.
The United States has long been, as President Reagan was fond of observing, "a shining city upon the hill" -- a model for refugees and all others fleeing oppression. It would be a shame for this to be wiped away by the single stroke of a pen on an ill-conceived executive order without Congress or the American people having a chance to weigh in.