National Security

Biden on track to beat Trump’s record for fewest resettled refugees

Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer match near where they are staying at the Ft. McCoy Army base in Wisconsin
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The Biden administration is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees in the history of the program despite big promises it would revamp a system decimated under former President Trump.

The administration had resettled 7,637 refugees by the end of August — a figure experts say makes it near impossible to reach the 11,814 low point under the Trump administration by the close of the fiscal year that ended Friday.

The final figures are expected in the coming days, but advocates say both COVID-19 and a series of missteps by President Biden led to just a trickle of refugees 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.

“It is quite disappointing how few refugees were actually resettled this year. I don’t think that was inevitable. I think it was the result of policy choices and what to prioritize,” Sunil Varghese with the International Refugee Assistance Project told The Hill, stressing that the coronavirus was not the only factor.

“While we knew that there would be fewer refugees resettled this year than perhaps in years past, it’s surprising how few were resettled.”

Preliminary government figures reviewed by The Hill show the Biden administration was striving to ramp up processing in September, but experts say even if the White House narrowly edges out its predecessor, it has still fallen short of the expectations it set at the outset of Biden’s presidency.

“Even if the administration manages to resettle more in this fiscal year than the last year of the Trump administration, it’s still only a fraction of the overall goal and only marginally higher than the lowest point on record,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director with the American Immigration Council.

The low figures for a program brought into its modern form in 1980 to boost the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. take on new urgency as resettlement agencies have been told to prepare for as many 95,000 Afghan refugees following the U.S. evacuation.

Biden’s path to increasing the refugee cap has been a convoluted one.

In February, he 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, leaving in limbo refugees with a number of security and health checks that risked expiring shortly after their March flights.

“Because he took until April, all those flights that had been booked had to be canceled and the security checks started to expire and that was really really frustrating. For some of those people, housing had been readied, families were excited to reunify with loved ones — that was a really hard moment,” said Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy for Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations that helps resettle refugees.

But 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.

“Everyone did a collective ‘What the f—’” Owen said.

The move came as Republicans were hammering Biden on an influx of migrants at the border.

“It’s clear at this point that much of what has happened or not happened on immigration is driven by politics at the border. That crisis narrative has forced the administration to direct resources from other places to the Southern border, and this is in part a reflection of that,” Loweree said.

The reversal was whiplash for the resettlement agencies that contract with the government and who had set about rehiring staff in order to rebuild a system that atrophied under the Trump administration.

“Increasing the figure earlier on would have meant an infusion of resources that were especially needed by local resettlement agencies that were hanging on by a thread,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“That’s where I think the defensiveness matters because it not only sends a signal but it sends resources.”

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 that makes it official. 

But the report seems to express some internal doubt about the government’s ability to meet that goal, 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.

Owen said she’s been lobbying the White House to raise the target to 200,000 for next year given the expected influx of Afghan refugees — a feature that advocates say makes even the 125,000 figure essential.

“I think there are many steps that the government can take if they choose to and so I think the 125,000 number is achievable if the administration makes it a priority,” Varghese said, noting that the administration has had nearly a year to prepare for restoring the refugee system to pre-Trump processing levels.

“I think we have been talking about refugee infrastructure for nine-to-10 months now, so I presume that’s what they’ve been doing since they haven’t been resettling refugees. And if there’s more infrastructure that needs to be built they need to be clear about what that means,” he said.

But 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, broadening the program to refugees who might otherwise be overlooked.

Owen said that’s a big factor in why the U.S. settled so few refugees in 2021.

“This is the case because 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,” she said.

Varghese said even having the capacity to process new refugees will require a whole-of-government approach.

“The Department of State needs to make sure that they are receiving referrals into the program that reflect the all time need and the various humanitarian crises around the world. The Department of Homeland Security needs to ramp up adjudication capacity. That means they need to hire more officers,” he said, something that means the government needs to speed hiring background checks and provide more space.

“We need the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to make sure there aren’t improper restrictions on refugee eligibility. …But all agencies need to make sure more cases don’t mean more backlogs and [instead] mean more decisions.”

But advocates warn that the coming year the Biden administration won’t be able to fall back on the dismantling of the Trump administration to justify any low numbers.

“Despite the decimated infrastructure the Biden administration inherited, it will need to own the resettlement figure for this coming fiscal year,” Vignarajah said.

“If we are going to reach President Biden’s goal of welcoming 125,000 the administration must be aggressive and innovative in ramping up processing.”

Tags Afghan refugees Donald Trump Joe Biden lowering the refugee cap Refugee refugee cap Right of asylum

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