U.S. refugee admissions still low
The Biden administration may struggle to reach its ambitious target this year
When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he promised to reverse three years of record-low refugee admission trends. But 2021 looked a lot like the year before. Between 2021 and 2022, admissions more than doubled, but the administration still reached only 20 percent of its goal for resettlements, leaving thousands of people waiting for placements.
Resettlement agencies hope that 2023 will change that trajectory. But rebuilding the hollowed-out refugee infrastructure could take years, and it’s unlikely the administration will get close to its lofty admissions goal this fiscal year.
Refugees differ from asylum-seekers, who apply for permission to stay in the United States once they have reached U.S. soil. The UN refugee agency and U.S. State Department work together to identify and screen refugees in other countries then resettle them once they are approved. Refugees must prove they need protection from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They must also pass security and medical screenings.
“It takes years, generally, for someone to be fully vetted and screened and admitted to the United States as a refugee,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Resettlement agencies help newly arrived refugees get established in the United States by assisting with things like applying for Social Security cards and registering children for school.
Aerlande Wontamo grew up in Nairobi, where thousands of refugees wait to resettle in the United States. Wontamo has worked in the refugee field for more than 15 years, most recently as the senior vice president for U.S. programs at World Relief. “I’ve kind of seen both ends,” she said. A tense political climate forced Wontamo’s father to flee Ethiopia for a Kenyan refugee camp where the rest of her family eventually joined him.
The United States has traditionally led the world in refugee resettlement. Congress approves each administration’s proposed annual refugee ceiling. Though previous administrations have not always met their refugee goals, many have gotten close. Former President Barack Obama capped admissions at 80,000 in 2009 and admitted 74,654 refugees that year. Admissions nearly hit the refugee ceiling between 2013 and 2017.
In 2017, former President Donald Trump lowered the refugee ceiling from 85,000 to 50,000 and again to 45,000 in 2018, though the administration admitted fewer than half of that. Trump lowered the cap further in 2019 and then again in 2020, dropping it to 18,000. Only 11,814 refugees arrived in the United States that year. Before leaving office, Trump set the 2021 cap at 15,000. The former president cited security concerns, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a need to focus resources on the nation’s severely backlogged asylum system.
Low refugee numbers during the Trump administration forced World Relief to cut staff and close several resettlement offices that help refugees find housing, jobs and enroll in school. Government employees transferred, and fewer resources were allocated to vetting and screening.
“Building back up is … a huge burden financially,” Wontamo said. Before the Trump administration’s cuts, World Relief operated 27 U.S. resettlement offices, according to Wontamo. Now they function with 20, though some of the offices merged after Trump left office.
Gelatt said the fall of Kabul and an influx of Afghan evacuees further strained a resettlement system unable to operate at full strength. The United States bypassed the sluggish refugee system and evacuated over 76,000 Afghans into the United States on special immigrant visas or through temporary humanitarian parole.
Organizations that typically worked on refugee resettlement shifted resources to resettling Afghans in the United States. Gelatt said resettlement agencies have similarly had their hands full helping more than 110,000 Ukrainians rebuilding their lives in the United States on humanitarian parole. “Those big efforts have further slowed the rebuilding of the formal refugee resettlement program,” she said.
Biden renewed Trump’s 15,000 cap in April 2021, shocking refugee advocates. He increased the ceiling to 62,500 in May 2021, but the lost time meant the United States admitted a record low of 11,411 refugees that year.
Though Biden upped the limit to 125,000 in fiscal year 2022, the administration only admitted about 25,400 refugees, reaching about 20 percent of the cap. “When the administration announced that high goal, they did note they were unlikely to achieve it,” Gelatt said.
The administration kept the same ceiling for fiscal year 2023. “The ambitious target demonstrates that the United States is committed to rebuilding and strengthening the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. He also said the administration will modernize the system and resolve application delays.
Gelatt said the target is just that: ambitious. “They’re hoping to be … on pace month by month to reach a number like that next year,” she said. “But it does seem like quite a slow rebuilding process.”
Wontamo is similarly hopeful about the administration’s intentions, but she noted that much of the holdup is overseas. Some of the delays come down to getting processing centers up and running again in other countries.
The Biden administration unveiled the Welcome Corps in January, a program that allows individual Americans to form sponsorship groups to resettle refugees. This may speed up resettlement in the long term, but Wontamo is doubtful that what is starting as a small pilot program will make much of a difference right away.
Wontamo is hopeful that the administration will get nearer to its goal this year. “They think that we’re going to get pretty close,” she said, referencing World Relief’s conversations with the State Department. She said admissions lagged during the first quarter of this fiscal year, with the administration meeting 12 percent of its goal between October and December 2022. But Wontamo said a sluggish first quarter isn’t uncommon, and they’ve seen an increase during the second quarter.
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