Now is the time to rebuild America’s refugee resettlement program

A Ukrainian refugees child reacts as he boards a bus after arriving at Hendaye train station, southwestern France
Associated Press/Bob Edme

In response to Russian aggression, the Biden administration announced that it will give temporary protection status (TPS) to Ukrainians already in the United States. This move, which was backed by both Democrats and Republicans, will protect some 75,000 Ukrainians at risk of deportation.  

More than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine thus far, and more will likely join them. A large of majority of Americans want our country to shield immigrants already here and accept refugees from UkraineAfghanistan and beyond. The reality is we do not have the capacity to do so. We can’t help them get here, and even if they were here, they’d be stuck in backlogs and bureaucracy.

Since taking office, President Biden has pushed for comprehensive immigration reform. That agenda has stalled in Congress. Instead of focusing on a large bill unlikely to pass, Biden should use this rare moment of support for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees to build on his Ukrainian TPS announcement. Biden should propose a series of smaller, targeted immigration reforms centered on rebuilding our refugee apparatus, providing a pathway to citizenship for TPS holders, and cutting bureaucratic red tape that is holding back immigrants. 

Between COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, a system that processed and welcomed more refugees than other any country since 1980 has been left decimated. The Department of Homeland Security under Trump shifted many government refugee officers to other agencies, adopted new security vetting procedures that lengthened wait times and added redundant layers of government bureaucracy in order to deliberately slow the process.

Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions each year. Trump cut those numbers to the lowest level in modern history. America’s acceptance of refugees from 2016 to 2020 dropped 86 percent.

Lower refugee admissions created a cascading effect from which the United States has not recovered. Fewer refugees meant reduced government funding for refugee organizations, which receive federal funding per refugee they resettle. As a result, these organizations over the last four years closed offices, reduced staff and saw a 38 percent decrease in their overall resettlement capacity. 

Simply raising the refugee numbers is not a solution. Biden lifted the ceiling for refugees to 62,000 but given the atrophy of the entire resettlement system, the administration could process a little more than 11,000 in 2021.  

Thus, one of the first bills Biden should promote is a new Refugee Act. Such a bill should focus less on a ceiling for refugees and more on creating a floor of no fewer than 95,000 refugees per year. Such a number would ensure that both the federal government and refugee organizations are consistently resettling refugees and receiving the federal funds necessary to operate. Having such a number in the first year will be nearly impossible, as President Biden learned, but it will congressionally prohibit a future President Trump from lowering the numbers to zero once again.

This bill should include not just funding for the current system, but separate funding for the task of rapidly hiring and training case officers to process thousands of new cases, clearing the backlog of old cases, and eliminating unnecessary, security-related red tape. 

In rebuilding our refugee apparatus, we should not forget about the TPS beneficiaries. The purpose of TPS is to shield people from being deported back to countries where there are ongoing natural disasters or wars. It also allows those individuals, subject to a background check, to obtain work permits. But it does not provide any pathway to citizenship or direct access to U.S. residency. The primary beneficiaries of TPS are Venezuelans, who account for nearly half of all TPS holders, the majority of whom live in FloridaThere is strong pressure from the Venezuelan community on both Florida Republican senators to support a pathway to citizenship for TPS holders. Biden should work directly with them to get something passed.

Finally, with America’s labor shortage contributing to inflation and supply chain problems, Biden should lean on immigration as a solution. Despite millions of job openings, there are 1.5 million pending work permits for immigrants who are already in the United States. Thus, those Ukrainians who are here legally and want to contribute to our economy will have a long wait before they can report to work. There are huge backlogs in processing permanent residency cases as well.

But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) has proposed a bill to help alleviate these green card backlogs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proposed similar legislation. Both pieces would not just help Ukrainians adjust to society but all of America at this moment of crisis. Biden should call these two and any other Republicans who are serious about any immigration bills.

During his State of the Union speech, President Biden stressed that “[i]n the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment.” Americans want us to do more by refugees and more by immigrants. Biden should embrace this moment and do the work necessary to get these bills passed in rapid succession. Such a show of force by Congress and the White House would be a frank and global statement of who we want to be as a nation, and we need that now more than ever. 

Christopher Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a U.S. diplomat between 2011 and 2018 and served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain.

Tags 1980 Refugee Act American immigration crisis asylum laws Donald Trump Forced migration Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Rand Paul Russia-Ukraine crisis Temporary protected status Thom Tillis

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