clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Biden finally raised the refugee cap. Now comes the hard part.

The US might not come close to resettling 62,500 refugees in 2021.

Asafu Alamaya, an 80-year-old blind woman who fled the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, sits in her makeshift shelter at a refugee camp in Sudan on December 12, 2020.
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

After months of indecision and blowback from within his own party, President Joe Biden has finally raised the cap on refugee admissions for 2021 to 62,500 — but he has made clear he doesn’t think the US will actually admit that many people.

“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway.”

After former President Donald Trump spent years trying to tear down the refugee program — and global resettlement efforts nearly came to a halt amid the pandemic — rebuilding the US’s capacity to receive refugees won’t be easy. The US has admitted just 2,334 refugees between October 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021, well short of even Trump’s previous cap of 15,000.

Tens of thousands more refugees are still stranded abroad, waiting for their chance to come to the US, including many who have already been interviewed by US authorities and are facing lengthy processing delays. But to be able to take them in, refugee resettlement agencies will have to reopen offices they were forced to close nationwide, hire and train new staff, and reforge relationships with local organizations, employers, and landlords to help refugees assimilate. The US government will have to review its vetting procedures to ensure refugees can be processed quickly, while also taking into account security concerns.

International infrastructure also needs to be scaled up. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has to increase its capacity to resume on-the-ground interviews of refugees whom the US will potentially resettle. That will allow more people to join the refugee pipeline — and set the US up for success if Biden raises the cap on admissions next year to 125,000, as promised.

“The target is an ambitious, aspirational target, but we should shoot towards the target,” Erol Kekic, senior vice president of Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program, said.

Biden’s indecision has delayed resettlement efforts

The scramble to reach the new refugee admissions cap is in part due to delays Biden created.

When he took office, Biden tempered his campaign promise to resettle 125,000 refugees, instead setting a goal to admit just 62,500 refugees this fiscal year in light of pandemic-related challenges and the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies.

But after evaluating the status of the refugee program, administration officials said in April that even the reduced goal looked unlikely to achieve. The White House consequently announced it would maintain the cap at 15,000, a record low set by the Trump administration. It was only after sharp blowback from Democratic members of Congress and refugee advocacy groups that Biden changed course, announcing Monday he would raise the cap to 62,500.

But during the two months that Biden delayed doing so, refugee resettlement agencies lost valuable time that could have been spent ramping up capacity. Now, the prospect of reaching the 62,500 cap by September 31, the end of the fiscal year, is even more unlikely.

“Resettling 62,500 refugees within this fiscal year is ambitious and, unfortunately, unrealistic,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, said. “But we knew that as we advocated for a higher [cap], because what the president sets as the refugee cap is both aspirational and inspirational for a domestic and international audience.”

The delay has also prevented refugees who have already been vetted by the federal government from coming to the US. The State Department, anticipating Biden would raise the refugee cap, had scheduled US-bound flights for more than 700 refugees in advance. But their flights were canceled after Biden failed to take action in time.

“If we had two more months in this fiscal year, we would certainly be able to move more people,” Kekic said.

Refugee agencies in the US are still rebuilding

Domestically, refugee agencies that were under siege for the past four years have been in the process of rebuilding ever since Biden won the presidency.

Under Trump, refugee agencies had their federal funding reduced, forcing them to scale back their infrastructure and staffing substantially to keep their resettlement programs afloat. More than 100 resettlement offices — nearly a third of the nationwide total — closed, and many government staff tasked with processing refugees abroad were laid off or reassigned.

“In some cases, these staff members were experts with decades of experience and institutional knowledge,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “So, many of them didn’t have the luxury to wait around for resettlement to resume. Some of them were forced to pursue other professional opportunities.”

During the pandemic, resettlement agencies also had to scale back the level of personal contact with refugees and raise private funds to provide them with laptops and smartphones — necessities in the era of social distancing, but not things that have historically been provided.

Biden’s decision to set a higher refugee cap opens up resources for those agencies to ramp up their capacity again. Critically, that involves investing in local partnerships to help set up refugees for long-term success.

Resettlement agencies will have to find landlords willing to rent out affordable accommodations. In a competitive job market, they also need to rebuild relationships with employers willing to hire refugees. And they will have to recruit and train volunteers to help furnish apartments for newly arrived families and drive them to medical appointments, English classes, and job interviews.

All of that takes time. But most agencies are optimistic they can thrive again soon.

“The severe cutbacks in public support and the damage to the public-private partnership was somewhat countered by a surge in community support for the refugee program, so that puts us in a good position to revive and rebuild the program,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS, said.

Refugee processing abroad needs to ramp up again

Although refugee resettlement agencies in the US are confident they can rebuild quickly, international operations are a different story.

The pandemic appears to be turning a corner in the US, but many countries that currently host refugees are far from achieving comparable levels of vaccination. That has made some of the on-the-ground work in host countries risky.

Refugees have to undergo extensive, in-person processing and vetting. Typically, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) identifies a refugee abroad and refers them to a receiving country such as the US. A refugee support center, run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or a resettlement agency, helps the refugee prepare an application showing the basis of their claim with supporting identity documents, if available.

That application is sent to DHS, which then dispatches an official out into the field to interview the applicant and determine whether they fit the legal criteria for what constitutes a refugee: that they face “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.

If they advance, they undergo a medical evaluation and their application is shared with unspecified federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to screen for potential security threats. They can only get on a plane to the US if they pass.

“It’s a miracle anybody gets through it, frankly,” Hetfield said. “We used to say it takes 18 to 24 months, but that was under the Obama administration, and now it takes between 18 months and forever — or never.”

The pandemic further complicated this process. UNHCR has modified its practices to prevent the spread of Covid-19, including implementing social distancing protocols and allowing for remote work where possible, but its resettlement operations have continued.

“Our motto since the beginning of Covid has been to stay and deliver,” Chris Boian, a UNHCR spokesperson, said. “We have continued [to make referrals] throughout this pandemic, and now we’ll begin building up our staff again around the world to bring that back up to more robust levels.”

But there has been a bottleneck at the stage where US officials are supposed to interview refugees. According to a source familiar with State Department internal data, some 78,000 refugees who have undergone initial screening are currently waiting for an interview.

That’s partly because the Trump administration shifted resources away from refugee processing, resulting in much fewer interviews. In 2017, there were 352 officers assigned to the refugee corps, but by 2020, the federal government budgeted for only 235. Consequently, interviews dropped sharply, from 125,000 in 2016 to just 44,000 three years later.

The pandemic has also made international travel difficult for officials who are required by regulation to interview refugees in person, even though other parts of the US immigration system, including deportations, have continued to function over video chat.

The interview delays threaten the US’s ability not only to reach this year’s cap but also to add to the pipeline of refugees who might come in 2022. The Biden administration has indicated to agencies that it intends to hire more people for the refugee corps — and that officials tasked with fieldwork are either in the process of being vaccinated or are already vaccinated — but building up that workforce could take six months to a year, Kekic said.

“Until we can send people to the field to do this adjudication, we can’t approve any more people,” he added. “Now is the time to build a pipeline for next year.”

The US refugee program needs an overhaul

There are ways the Biden administration could speed up refugee processing domestically and help the resettlement program better reflect the US’s humanitarian priorities.

Biden could start by revamping vetting procedures, which appear to be delaying the applications of thousands of refugees. Some 36,000 refugees have had an interview but require more processing, including security checks, according to a source familiar with internal State Department data.

But it’s not clear exactly what is causing the holdup, because the vetting process is basically a black box.

“It’s just an incredibly opaque process that takes forever, and as a result, the resettlement program has become a rescue program that moves at a glacial pace, and that’s really not acceptable,” Hetfield said. “The capacity to do emergency resettlement is extremely limited at best, and that’s something that needs to be looked at.”

Biden has ordered a review of those procedures in the interest of making screenings “more efficient, meaningful and fair” while also using “sound methods of fraud detection to ensure program integrity and protect national security.” There has been some improvement in the number of security approvals refugee resettlement agencies have observed since Biden took office, but it’s still “just a drop in the ocean in terms of what’s needed to make this move much faster,” Kekic said.

Another concern is whether Biden can make the refugee program more robust to changes in administrations. Some have advocated for adopting an annual refugee admissions floor.

“This would help insulate the program from the political winds of a future executive branch that would seek to use refugees as a political cudgel,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.

There are already two bills in Congress that would establish such a floor: One would set it at 95,000, and another — with more than 50 cosponsors — would set it at 125,000. It would represent a statement of the US’s enduring commitment to the world’s most vulnerable people.

“You cannot overstate the importance and the symbolic power of the US decision to increase its admissions,” Boian said. “It really clearly sends the message that everybody needs to do more on this front, that all countries need to make more places available for resettlement of refugees. It’s called leading by example. This is a global human challenge — not a problem for any one country to confront on its own.”