U.S. renews 125,000 refugee cap
The Biden administration admitted half its goal last year
The United States resettled more refugees in the fiscal year that ended Sep. 30 than in the previous three years combined, though the Biden administration filled slightly less than half of 125,000 available slots. Advocates and refugee resettlement agencies are encouraged by the uptick in admissions this year and expect the administration to welcome an even greater percentage of next year’s cap, also set at 125,000.
Refugees, like asylum-seekers, must prove that they are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution” based on their race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. But refugees must receive approval to enter the country through a screening process before traveling to the United States, while asylum-seekers make their claim once they reach U.S. soil.
In 2018, the UN recorded 25.9 million refugees worldwide. By 2021 that number hit 27.1 million; it jumped to 35.3 million at the end of last year—the largest documented yearly increase. U.S. refugee admissions plummeted in 2018 as global displacements skyrocketed. The Trump administration lowered the annual cap from 50,000 to 45,000 and again to 30,000 in 2019. As COVID-19 spread in 2020, the United States cut the cap to 18,000 and admitted fewer than 12,000 refugees.
President Joe Biden promised to revitalize the refugee resettlement system when he took office in 2021. But even though Biden raised the ceiling to 62,500, the United States only admitted 11,411 refugees that year. He raised it again to 125,000 in 2022, but the administration only reached 20 percent of its ambitious target.
The Trump-era cuts and slow regrowth during the early years of the Biden administration forced many resettlement agencies to close offices and downsize staff. The agencies help refugees find housing and employment and enroll their children in school. Pandemic restrictions also reduced overseas processing to a crawl. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and Russian invasion of Ukraine created large numbers of refugees and overwhelmed an already feeble system. Biden bypassed the refugee resettlement process by evacuating Afghans and Ukrainians on temporary humanitarian parole programs and special immigrant visas.
This year marked the first time since 2017 that the number of refugees admitted surpassed 50,000. “It isn’t a switch that you turn off and on,” said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief. “It takes time to restart a process that includes a very thorough vetting process and lots of bureaucratic steps.”
Though 2023 admissions started slowly, the United States welcomed more than 8,700 refugees in September, the last month of the fiscal year. “We haven’t seen a month like that since 2017,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nation’s largest resettlement agencies. She called September’s admissions “incredible progress.”
Staffing boosts contributed to the increase. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, is the Department of Homeland Security operation responsible for processing immigration applications. It added 67 employees to the Refugee Corps in the past year, after already doubling the staff between 2021 and 2022. Officers travel the world to interview refugee hopefuls. They conducted 91,000 interviews in 2023, more than double the number they completed in 2022.
Earlier this year, the administration announced the Welcome Corps, a private sponsorship initiative aimed at getting more communities involved in resettlement instead of relying solely on the nine resettlement agencies operating in large cities. Vignarajah said it’s unclear whether the Welcome Corps has significantly affected the resettlement process.
USCIS also piloted concurrent processing to reduce the time between processing stages. The vetting process is rigorous and can take up to 36 months. Now, refugees can complete multiple steps at once “So that is a real improvement,” said Vignarajah. “But we’re still only halfway there,” she added, noting the administration still has a long way to go to meet its lofty 2024 goals.
Along with renewing the 125,000-person cap, Biden also allocated more spots to Latin America, hoping to ease the strain on the U.S.-Mexico border. Illegal crossings began climbing in July, and a record number of families crossed the border illegally in September. Vignarajah is hopeful the 35,0000 to 50,0000 available spots will discourage families from risking the journey and build trust between the United States and Latin American countries.
Increasing the number of refugee spots isn’t a quick fix since the vetting process can take years. Preliminary September data showed that U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 9,000 people per day last month.
“Even if the changes take months to sort of see an impact on the border, they will have an effect,” Soerens with World Relief argued. If an individual is selected for refugee resettlement, that will encourage their family members to wait instead of making the dangerous journey to cross the border illegally and pursue an asylum claim, he said.
Vignarajah hopes the administration will continue to prioritize boosting refugee numbers. “Setting an ambitious target for the region requires dedicated resources, and building meaningful humanitarian infrastructure,” said Vignarajah. “It’s great to make the announcement, we also need to see action.”
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