Biden resettles fewer refugees than Trump in new record low

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The Biden administration resettled the lowest number of refugees in the history of the admissions program after making promises to revitalize a process largely stalled under former President Trump.

The Biden administration resettled 11,411 refugees by the close of the fiscal year that ended Friday, according to the State Department, failing to meet the previous lowpoint of 11,814 set under Trump’s last full fiscal year in office.

Advocates previously told The Hill that COVID-19 and a series of missteps by President Biden led to just a trickle of refugees being resettled, from a White House that during the campaign pledged to resettle as many as 125,000 people a year through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The totals do not include recent arrivals of Afghan refugees, who were allowed to enter the country through a different process known as humanitarian parole. Biden also entered office about four months into the fiscal year. 

The figures do show a last-ditch effort under Biden to ramp up processing. The administration had resettled just 7,637 refugees by the end of August — meaning in September alone they processed nearly 3,800 cases.

Since entering office, Biden has waffled on just how many refugees to let in.

In February, the president said he would raise the cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year — part of a pledge to reach 125,000 within his first year in office. 

But he slow-walked the presidential determination that officially set the new number for the program, forcing refugee resettlement agencies to cancel flights for a number of people set to be resettled in March.

And when Biden finally signed the determination in April, he backtracked significantly, setting the refugee cap at 15,000, the same all-time low used under Trump, infuriating both advocates and congressional Democrats.

Facing instant backlash, the White House again raised the refugee cap to 62,500, a largely aspirational figure despite being significantly lower than caps set between 70,000 to 80,000 under prior administrations.

Refugee advocates say they’ve been frustrated by stalled progress on a number of their recommendations, including doing virtual interviews and hiring more government employees to work through backlogs. They also want the U.S. to expand its referral system beyond the recommendations of those made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), broadening the program to refugees who might otherwise be overlooked. 

“The administration didn’t do a good enough job investing in rebuilding the overseas and domestic infrastructure that is our capacity to welcome, and they didn’t prioritize the improvements we’ve been recommending in order to strengthen the program and increase the number of arrivals,” Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy for Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations that helps resettle refugees, previously told The Hill.

The Biden administration blamed much of that delay on its predecessor.

“During the previous administration, [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] interview numbers were significantly reduced and the pace of security vetting slowed down. Coupled with much lower requests to UNHCR for referrals, this significantly depleted our pipeline of cases that could continue processing in 2021.  As we aimed to rebuild, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to drastically curtail the normal operations of the U.S.  Refugee Admissions Program.  This included USCIS’ ability to resume sending refugee officers abroad to conduct interviews,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Hill.

“Our review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program revealed that it will take some time to build back toward the numbers to which the president has committed,” they continued, adding that State is “working expeditiously to rebuild processing capacity,” including taking referrals and visiting more refugee camps. 

Refugee advocates are especially eager to see progress given the expected arrival of some 95,000 Afghan refugees in the year to come.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, has pushed the administration to take a number of steps to ramp up processing, including hiring more staff and funneling more funding to refugee resettlement agencies like hers that help provide initial housing and support.

“We are saddened but unsurprised by the record-low admission figures for this fiscal year. It speaks to the lasting damage of the Trump administration’s four-year assault on the refugee program,” she said in a statement.

“Responsibility now sits with the new administration in terms of resettlement figures for this fiscal year. If we are to reach President Biden’s goal of welcoming 125,000 refugees, the administration must be aggressive and innovative in ramping up processing.”

Biden notified Congress of his recommendation to set the refugee cap at 125,000 for the coming fiscal year, though he has yet to sign the presidential determination making it official, concerning advocates who fear another delay.

“I don’t want to have a repeat of the previous fiscal year where we grind the refugee program to a halt because we don’t have an admissions goal,” Owen said Tuesday. “If this president is serious about being a nation of welcome, he should immediately sign this year’s admissions goal.”

But the report to Congress floating the 125,000 goal seems to express some internal doubt about the government’s ability to meet it, writing to Congress that the State Department would issue funding for 65,000 refugees.

“Those funding levels will be re-evaluated and increased as appropriate as the year progresses and as it becomes clearer how much progress can be made against the target,” the White House wrote.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Refugee refugees

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