KERRY BOYD ANDERSON April 26, 2021 22:20429
When the Biden administration this month announced plans to mostly maintain the historically low cap on refugees set by its predecessor, the backlash from Democrats was so swift that the White House changed tune within hours. The situation highlighted the complex political and practical realities of managing the US immigration system. The outcome will have huge consequences for thousands of individual refugees.
On April 16, the White House announced that it would maintain the cap of 15,000 refugees to be resettled in the US for fiscal year 2021 — the same number set by the Trump administration. Although the announcement noted that the cap might be increased if the US successfully admitted 15,000 refugees before the end of the fiscal year, the number is far below earlier Biden team plans to increase the cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year. While campaigning for president, Joe Biden said he would set a goal of resettling 125,000 refugees in the first full fiscal year of his term.
Faced with quick and significant opposition from Democrats and refugee advocates, as well as internal disagreement within the administration, the White House backtracked from the 15,000 limit. A new cap is expected to be announced by May 15.
Messaging on this issue has been unusually messy for the Biden team. However, media reports and statements from the president suggest he was concerned about the political and practical challenges of resettling refugees at a time when the US is struggling to cope with a surge of migrants along the border with Mexico.
The political challenge stems from former President Donald Trump’s impact on attitudes toward refugees. While the US public has always had mixed feelings about refugees, the refugee resettlement program — known as the US Refugee Admissions Program — historically received support from Democratic and Republican presidents and lawmakers. Trump used unusually virulent anti-refugee rhetoric, lumping refugees in with his wider anti-immigration positions and weakening Republican support for refugees. Additionally, Biden has concerns that the situation at the southern border might damage Democrats politically, and it appears that he felt this was not the right time to increase refugee numbers.
To understand the practical challenges, it is important to consider some of the basics of how the complex US immigration system works. Migrants to the country include those seeking to join family members, pursuing economic opportunities, and fleeing violence and persecution. The last category includes both asylum seekers and refugees, and they typically make up a small percentage of immigrants.
Asylum seekers and refugees both qualify for protection based on specific criteria related to violence and persecution in their home countries. Asylum seekers can claim protection after arriving in the US by air, land or sea, and then their cases are reviewed and processed.
Refugee resettlement is a separate process that screens applicants while they are living in other countries. Multiple US agencies work with the UN refugee agency to identify vulnerable refugees for resettlement. Those refugees go through extensive security, health and other screenings before coming to the US. No other immigrant group receives such stringent vetting. The president sets the annual caps on admissions, though Congress determines funding. Typically, funding is based on the number of refugees admitted in a year.
Biden should increase admissions gradually, commensurate with steps to rebuild the capacity for admitting, supporting and integrating refugees.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The Trump administration reduced caps on refugee admissions to historic lows. Since the refugee resettlement program was established in 1980, the cap never went below 70,000 and was usually much higher. Actual admissions are sometimes lower than the caps, but annual admissions never fell below 27,000 before Trump. Along with cutting admissions, the Trump administration cut the personnel of key government offices involved with the program. The related cuts in funding also affected the nongovernmental organizations that play a critical role in helping to resettle refugees — all nine of the refugee resettlement agencies that partner with the government had to close offices and cut staff.
The gutting of the governmental and nongovernmental organizations involved in refugee resettlement poses a challenge to those in the Biden administration who want to increase refugee resettlement numbers back to their pre-Trump numbers. There is not yet sufficient capacity to do so. Furthermore, Biden was concerned that one of the government agencies involved, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was overwhelmed, given its role in working with unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border.
The partial dismantling of the refugee resettlement system under the Trump administration now presents an opportunity to rebuild it in ways that are more sustainable and help build broader public support. In a Feb. 4 executive order, Biden took important initial steps to start rebuilding the system. Reports from institutions such as the Center for American Progress and the Penn Biden Center offer practical recommendations for renewing the refugee resettlement system. Congress could enact legislation to set a minimum number of annual admissions with related funding, which would help nongovernmental resettlement organizations plan their budgets and capacity needs.
Biden should increase refugee admissions gradually, commensurate with steps to rebuild the capacity for admitting, supporting and integrating refugees. His administration can do that while increasing admissions this year well beyond 15,000; indeed, increasing admissions is part of the process of restoring funding and capacity. Meanwhile, efforts to stabilize the US refugee program would help individual refugees, including those who were approved for resettlement but saw their hopes vanish under the Trump administration.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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