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America's refugee and asylum debate

America's refugee and asylum debate
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America is having a refugee and asylum debate again. The news headlines are currently focused on the negotiations between the White House and Congress regarding the annual cap on refugees to be admitted into the country. Behind those headlines, however, the country is struggling with how best to address various mounting critical issues concerning refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons as well as irregular migrants. 

Recently the Biden administration announced that it would leave the cap at 15,000, which is the record low set by the former administration for fiscal 2021. Following strong objections from human rights advocates and various Congressional Democrats, the administration subsequently said that the final cap to be set by May 15 would be higher, but unlikely to reach the 62,500 put forward by the president in February.  

In recent decades prior to 2016, the U.S. annual ceiling for refugees was about 80,000, with highs of more than 120,000 in the early 1990s and more than 200,000 at the time of the refugee resettlement program’s inception in 1980. For fiscal 2020, nearly 12,000 refugees were resettled in the country, under a refugee ceiling of 18,000. For 2022, the administration has pledged to raise the ceiling to 125,000 refugees, which is less than one percent of the world’s total number of refugees. Since 1980, more than 3.7 million refugees and asylees have been accepted into the U.S.

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In addition to the annual cap for refugees, various related issues are posing serious challenges for the While House, Congress and the American public. Prominent among those challenges is the selection of refugees and asylees, determining the legitimacy of asylum claims and deciding the fate of rejected asylum claims and those with expiring temporary protected status (TPS).

Persons applying for refugee status are typically outside the U.S. Any foreign national physically present in the United States or arriving at a port of entry may seek asylum regardless of their immigration status. TPS, offered to approximately 320,000 foreign nationals as of March 11, 2021, is provided by the administration to persons of 10 countries affected by environmental disasters, armed conflict or other extraordinary conditions and permits them to work and live in the U.S. for a limited period of time.

To be eligible for refugee or asylum status, one must be unable or unwilling to return home because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Unemployment, poverty, lack of housing, education and health care, domestic violence and crime are by and large not viewed as legitimate grounds for asylum and claims on those grounds are therefore typically rejected.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the courts, immigration judges in 2020 managed to decide on the second highest number of asylum claims in the last 20 years. In fiscal 2020, the U.S. granted asylum to approximately 31,000 individuals. The rate of asylum claim denial reached a record high of 72 percent, up from 55 percent in 2016.

The U.S. and many other countries, especially throughout Europe, are struggling with policies to deal with persons whose asylum claims have been rejected, their TPS has expired or are unlawfully residing in the country. While in principle those persons should return to their home countries, in practice many do not voluntarily leave, but remain in the country. 

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While the Biden administration has put forward a 100-day pause on deportations, legal challenges have caused the courts to indefinitely ban its implementation. More broadly, the administration advanced a proposal for a path to citizenship to an estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants. That proposal would be the most ambitious since the 1986 Immigration and Reform Control Act, which legalized nearly 3 million unauthorized migrants.  

Many countries across the globe are facing serious social, economic, political and environmental hardships and risk joining the ranks of failing states. In the countries of Central America, for example, the populations have increased potential for migration surges due the pandemic’s economic fallout and extreme weather conditions, including hurricanes and recurrent droughts.  

Global assessments find growing numbers of men, women and children from troubled developing countries would like to emigrate to the U.S. Many of those people are among the record-high 26 million refugees and more than 50 million displaced persons in the world today. Many others are seeking asylum due to climate disasters, human rights violations, domestic abuse, social violence and armed conflict. And still others simply desire a future free of poverty, corruption and insecurity for themselves and their children. 

The evolving migration developments at the southern U.S. border, including more than 170,000 unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers apprehended in March, pose serious challenges to the Biden administration. In contrast to the president’s comparatively high approval ratings on addressing the coronavirus pandemic (64 percent) and the economy (54 percent), less than one third of the country (29  percent) approves of his policies and programs to deal with the immigration crisis at the southern border. 

The handling of immigration at the southern border may cause problems for the administration with respect to its plans for refugees, asylum seekers and immigration reform. Some have also observed that the southern border migration crisis is likely to undercut the administration’s desire to maintain its Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. 

In the coming months, the White House and Congress will face pressing and controversial questions concerning refugees, asylum seekers and those with TPS. How many refugees should be permitted to enter the country annually? Should the basis for granting asylum be expanded beyond the widely recognized criteria? Should those residing unlawfully in the country due to a failed asylum claim be allowed to remain? Should those facing the end of their temporary protected status be permitted to stay and apply for citizenship? Those questions are among the vital issues that will need to be addressed in America’s refugee and asylum debate. 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."