It’s time to show that vulnerable refugees are once again an American priority
The dismantling of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by the Trump administration under the false pretense that refugee resettlement is incompatible with national security has been heartbreaking. Also troubling has been the Biden administration’s reluctance to address the tens of thousands of fully-vetted refugees awaiting resettlement in the pipeline — let alone the millions of forcibly displaced persons around the world — after promising to do so during his campaign.
While I commend President Biden for his recent decision to raise the ceiling from a historic low of 15,000 to 62,500, there is still work to be done to rebuild the refugee resettlement program and reestablish the United States as a global humanitarian leader.
In short — we cannot afford to forget about the refugee resettlement program now that President Biden has raised the refugee ceiling. This is not simply a box to check.
As outlined in my paper, Robust Refugee Programs Aid National Security, the Biden-Harris administration must collaborate with Congress to restore and strengthen the USRAP by allocating resources to fund and staff government agencies and local refugee resettlement offices that were forced to make significant cuts during the Trump administration.
The administration must also expedite security screenings for refugees by strengthening operations at the National Vetting Center and reengage our allies to collaboratively address the global displacement crisis.
As the former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, I know that building a strong refugee resettlement program — with thorough and efficient security vetting — is the right thing to do from both a humanitarian and a national security perspective. I’m not alone in this thinking. In fact, I joined former national security officials on the Council on National Security and Immigration in sending a letter to President Biden to make this exact argument.
With 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide — nearly half of which are children — failure to address the global refugee crisis could pose a threat to our national security. The majority of displaced persons are currently hosted in what the United Nations refers to as “Least Developed Nations.” These nations have the fewest resources available to meet the needs of displaced persons. The strains of caring for refugee populations has the potential to further destabilize these countries, many of which are already entangled in conflict.
Refugees living in the developing world are also susceptible to exploitation by criminals, terrorist organizations, and other bad actors as they wait — often for years and in desperate circumstances — for security checks and the opportunity to travel to the United States. It is critical that the Biden administration and Congress do everything in their power to ensure that refugees awaiting approval overseas are provided efficient vetting and fair adjudication to alleviate the hopelessness that can exacerbate the risk of exploitation and radicalization.
Rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program also provides an opportunity to reverse the damage done by President Trump’s xenophobic, “America First” foreign policy. American leadership matters in global affairs. As President Biden said during his presidential address to a joint session of Congress last week. “We have to show we’re back and we’re here to stay.” For decades, the United States demonstrated both strength and compassion by serving as a haven for the world’s most vulnerable refugees. And by investing in the USRAP, the Biden administration and Congress have an opportunity to re-assert our leadership, promote our democratic values and encourage other countries to do the same.
Some will have you believe we have to choose between welcoming the most vulnerable and ensuring our national security. This is simply untrue. In fact, strengthening the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and repairing our broken refugee resettlement network is critical to our national security.
President Biden has taken the necessary first step by raising the refugee ceiling and ending the ban on refugees from Muslim-majority countries. I applaud this hard-fought progress.
But it will take more than raising the ceiling to signal that vulnerable refugees are once again an American priority. The Biden administration and Congress must find bipartisan avenues to not only welcome more refugees, but allocate critical resources that will allow the USRAP to rebuild. The United States cannot afford to wait to resume its humanitarian leadership.
Elizabeth Neumann served as assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2018 to 2020. She is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration (CNSI) and a senior advisor at the National Immigration Forum, where she recently released a series of papers, “Insider Perspectives: National Security and Immigration.”
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