Despite President Joe Biden’s pledge to overhaul immigration and welcome refugees to the U.S., 2021 is on pace for a record low in refugee admissions.
According to the latest State Department numbers, the U.S. has accepted just 7,637 refugees this year as of Aug. 31 ― putting it on pace for a historic low, as the fiscal year ends Oct. 1. The refugee cap, a number set by the president outlining the intended number of refugees allowed to enter in a given year, was set as up to 62,500 after pushback by advocates, but the U.S. is unlikely to meet that number by Sept. 30.
The number of admitted refugees could rise before the end of the fiscal year following the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans and the arrival of thousands of Haitians seeking refuge at the southern Texas border. But refugee advocates and lawmakers alike are becoming increasingly frustrated with the administration’s slow-moving response to helping refugees and asylum-seekers.
On Monday, the State Department announced that Biden will increase the refugee cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year, which begins next month. The administration vowed to focus on key vulnerable groups during the 2022 fiscal year, including refugees from Central America, Afghans who worked with the U.S., and Uighurs, members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic group who are facing genocide at the hands of the Chinese government.
“With the world facing unprecedented global displacement and humanitarian needs, the United States is committed to leading efforts to provide protection and promote durable solutions to humanitarian crises, to include providing resettlement for the most vulnerable,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday.
Rebuilding A Broken Refugee System
Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the president is federally required to consult with Congress to set and formally sign the presidential determination on refugee admissions ― the annual ceiling of refugees who are authorized to enter the U.S.
The U.S. led the world in refugee admissions in the decades after the 1980 Refugee Act, resettling more people fleeing their home countries than the rest of the world combined. But those numbers fell dramatically under former President Donald Trump, who slashed the refugee cap each year in office.
In 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees, the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration. While Trump, who made refugees a political scapegoat during his tenure, was in office, the refugee cap was steadily slashed every year during his presidency, obliterating the cap from 110,000 set by former President Barack Obama during his last year in office to just 18,000 during the 2020 fiscal year, which was also Trump’s last in office. The actual number of refugees admitted that year — 12,000 — was even lower than the 18,000 ceiling.
In 2018, the U.S no longer led the world in refugee resettlement ― the first time since 1980.
The Biden administration has since struggled to rebuild the program. Cuts by the Trump administration have forced refugee resettlement agencies to downsize, lay off staff and shutter offices across the country.
The coronavirus pandemic also created problems. Refugees who were approved to travel couldn’t leave the country due to lockdown measures and border restrictions. Embassies and consular offices across the globe closed down and stopped conducting interviews and appointments. Vulnerable groups, many of who have fled war or die in economic conditions, were stranded in makeshift shelters and camps, with a lack of access to clean water or space for social distancing.
A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency has since taken steps to “rebuild and enhance the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in line with the Administration’s priorities” which will enable the agency “to support increased admissions numbers in future years.”
“We are committed to resettling as many eligible refugees as possible. We recognize, however, that we remain constrained by the global pandemic and the operational challenges posed by COVID 19-related restrictions,” the spokesperson added.
More recently, the situation in Afghanistan and Biden’s hesitancy to formally accept more refugees only piled onto the problem when he missed the deadline to sign the directive by March 2021, forcing hundreds of refugees to cancel their flights to the U.S. as they awaited approval.
When Biden signed the directive weeks later in April 2021, the White House initially announced it would keep Trump’s 2020 refugee ceiling of 15,000 and would continue to ban refugees from several Muslim-majority countries including Somalia and Yemen. The move sparked outrage from fellow Democrats and refugee groups, and the president walked back the decision mere hours later, raising the cap to 62,500 for the fiscal year 2021.
Still, the U.S. was poised to admit under 8,000 as of last month.
Afghan refugees who assisted the U.S. military efforts and were admitted into the country through the Special Immigrant Visa program (SIV) were tallied in the State Department’s recent numbers. However, Afghans not eligible for that program and admitted under humanitarian parole — a pathway under immigration that allows certain individuals to enter and stay in the U.S. without a visa for urgent humanitarian reasons — are not tracked by the State Department’s Refugee Admissions Program.
On Tuesday, state and local officials from all 50 states including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Dan Johnson (R-Utah), and Chicago mayor Lori E. Lightfoot signed a bipartisan letter hosted by Refugees International, urging the Biden administration to make good on that promise of 125,000 refugees in the new year.
“While we applaud increasing this year’s refugee admissions goal to 65,200, we are disappointingly on pace to reach only a fraction of that number. As international travel resumes and health checks are implemented, we hope resettlement is accelerated in this time of great need, and that public health and protecting refugees are not treated as mutually exclusive,” read the letter.
‘Good Step In The Right Direction’
Refugee resettlement groups worry that the U.S. will not reach the new cap either, even as global refugee numbers reached an all-time high at over 26 million.
The new 125,000 cap is “a good step in the right direction,” said Jenny Yang, the senior vice president of policy and advocacy at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization. But Yang noted that it was still not enough on its own and called for the Biden administration to invest resources and funding into rebuilding the resettlement program, hiring more Refugee Corps staff, and streamlining security screenings more efficiently.
“It’s certainly possible to reach 125,000, especially in light of the demands ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti to Hong Kong,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. “Whether we have the infrastructure abroad and here at home is entirely in the hands of the administration.”
The administration must take concrete steps in order to hit those numbers, she explained, such as hiring more staff to conduct more interviews and reopening resettlement offices. It will also need to find creative solutions to address the need, such as allowing remote interviews during the pandemic and opening up the option for private sponsorships.
The State Department spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency has worked closely with resettlement agencies and will incorporate their feedback into efforts to rebuild the refugee program, including using video teleconference technology for refugee interviews, providing more funding and expanding community sponsorship opportunities.
“We will continue to review, assess and apply the full range of tools and initiatives available to strengthen the domestic and overseas infrastructure of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including expanded hiring for critical roles,” the spokesperson added.
Vignarajah hopes the administration takes away key lessons from what went wrong this year and avoids similar pitfalls, such as waiting too long to evacuate Afghan refugees.
“The evacuation experience should be a reminder of how dysfunctional refugee and Special Immigrant Visa processing has become,” said Vignarajah. “There needs to be a hard look at what is the necessary setting to protect Americans, and ensure the strength of the system without permitting excessive and unnecessary redundancies.”