One of the most significant national policy tussles this year concerns a traditionally sacrosanct tool of US diplomacy and humanitarian aid- refugee admissions. Joe Biden had campaigned on raising the refugee admissions cap from the historically low levels set by his predecessor, but in April, the Biden administration announced that it would retain the Trump-era 15,000 person cap through the end of the fiscal year. Following intense blowback from members of the President’s own party, the administration reversed course and quadrupled the cap to a total of 62,500 refugees this fiscal year. What is behind this single number, and why is it important? How should the United States adapt existing refugee policy to deal with a changing world?
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee under international law as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” United States law uses a slightly different framework based on the 1980 Refugee Act, which was incidentally co-sponsored by a young Joe Biden. This framework defines a refugee as a noncitizen who (among other conditions) “demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
Annual caps on refugee admissions are first proposed by the president and then approved by Congress. The overall cap is an upper bound, not a mandate- the US may actually admit far fewer refugees each year than the cap allows. For example, in 2006, the United States welcomed only 41,223 refugees despite an overall cap of 70,000. Admissions are managed by the State Department’s Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) in partnership with several government agencies and refugee-focused NGOs.
Rights for transgender people have been a widely discussed topic in recent years. Throughout his presidency, former President Trump dismantled many protections for transgender people, including rolling back rules that protected transgender people from discrimination in housing, healthcare, and in school. This included the Department of Education announcing that Title IX prohibits transgender students from playing school sports with their peers. President Biden has publicly denounced Trump’s treatment of transgender rights and has continued to express his support for the Equality Act, which would add protections against discrimination of gender identity to existing civil rights laws. Despite this, eleven states currently have discriminatory policies that create barriers for transgender students to be involved with high school athletics.
As COVID-19 cases surge in many countries, the US needs to fund global vaccination efforts. In the US, 36.6% are fully vaccinated, and 47.3% have received a first dose. Meanwhile, many other countries such as India, Brazil, and Turkey are seeing significant rises in case numbers and death tolls, especially as variants become more infectious and fatal. African countries have received under 2% of the global supply of vaccines. We are also starting to see sharp infection rate increases in Southeast Asia and South America. While the US is still seeing surges in certain areas, many countries are reaching record highs of both case numbers and deaths for reasons including disparities in health infrastructure and access to resources like vaccines.
India is currently overwhelmed with a surge in cases following a period of relaxed public health measures, a shortage of vaccines, and escalating variant rates. Significant vaccine shortages started being reported in early April, with many vaccination centers shutting down due to a lack of doses, despite India manufacturing a significant portion of AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines. Daily deaths in India have risen to 4,000, but the rate appears to be stabilizing. After seeing what happened in India, the US needs to move faster in making vaccines affordable and accessible through funding doses in other countries to prevent more unnecessary deaths.
While the US recently agreed to help send vaccine manufacturing supplies and medical equipment to India, quicker and more significant global funding needs to be prioritized to prevent more surges, deaths, and variants, especially in areas of denser populations and crowded multigenerational housing.
“A hundred days since I took the oath of office, lifted my hand off our family Bible and inherited a nation — we all did — that was in crisis. The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation, America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity, setbacks to strength.”
President Joe Biden delivered the statement above in a speech to Congress on April 28, 2021, just one day shy of his hundredth day in office. As presidents often set ambitious agendas, the first hundred days of every presidency can be understood as the first major yardstick by which to measure a president’s success.
Biden’s approval ratings after his first hundred days are at 57%, notably higher than the 41% that former President Trump had after the same period. This high approval rating makes a lot of sense, given how successful he’s been on the most salient policy areas. Perhaps most importantly, he’s already fulfilled most of his pandemic-related campaign promises. His goal to administer 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days was reached in only 60 days; in fact, by April 21, we had already reached 200 million vaccinations. Over half of American adults have already gotten at least one dose, and the United States has been averaging over two million vaccines per day. His promise to pass a COVID relief bill has also been successful, with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan providing stimulus checks and economic assistance to millions of Americans.
106 years ago, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands more were forced out of their homes. It was the end of World War I, and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) believed that the Christian Armenians might align with Russia, their primary adversary. To prevent any such treachery, the Ottoman Turks began arresting Armenian leaders and intellectuals. Armenians were further slaughtered by soldiers, police, and starved to death on a forced exodus through the Syrian desert.
While Turkey has admitted that the killings were atrocious, the country has adamantly refused to label them as genocide. Genocide, a word first used by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, is recognized as a crime by the United Nations. The UN defines genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”
Apart from a brief reference to the Armenian Genocide in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, no U.S. president has labeled the events as such. In fact, only 29 countries worldwide have acknowledged that the killing campaigns amounted to genocide. Much of this hesitancy is due to fear of retribution from Turkey, an important ally for the United States. But after decades of complicity from past American leaders, President Biden has become the first president to acknowledge that the killings were, in fact, genocide.