The administration informed Congress Wednesday that it plans to limit refugee admissions to 15,000 for fiscal year 2021, which began Thursday.
It is the smallest number of refugee admissions that President Donald Trump has permitted since he took office in 2017. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the administration set a limit of 18,000 refugees.
The new limit of 15,000 is the lowest level since Congress approved the refugee program in 1980.
The yearly limits set during the presidency of Barack Obama were between 70,000 and 85,000.
Under U.S. law, the president must give Congress a chance to study the administration's proposal. But the final decision is made by the president.
In 2020, the United States accepted only about half of the 18,000 permitted before the State Department suspended refugee admissions because of the COVID-19 health crisis.
In a statement, the State Department said the latest proposal aims to protect the "safety and well-being of Americans, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration is prepared to continue the country's history of leading the world in providing a safe place for refugees.
"We continue to be the single greatest contributor to the relief of humanitarian crisis all around the world, and we will continue to do so," Pompeo told reporters while traveling in Rome.
The latest proposal sets special allocations for refugees who suffered or fear persecution because of religion, as well as for refugees from Iraq who helped the United States. It also includes special consideration for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Trump's main opponent in the November 3 presidential election, Joe Biden, has promised to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 a year if he is elected. However, Biden has not said how quickly he would raise the limit.
The former vice president is the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. Trump is the candidate of the Republican Party.
Refugee rights groups say the program could take years to recover after years of reductions during Trump's presidency.
Tens of thousands of refugees are in the pipeline for arrival to the United States, with many far along in the approval process.
"We're talking about tens of millions of desperate families with no place to go and having no hope for protection in the near term," said Krish Vignarajah. He heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a non-profit organization that helps resettle refugees in the United States.
I'm Bryan Lynn.