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.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, potential refugees typically first register with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR officials screen the potential refugee, then refer qualifying applicants to a US State Department Resettlement Support Center. The State Department then conducts its own interviews and background checks, including biometric, criminal history, and disease screening. If no problems are uncovered during the 18-24 month process, a team of government agencies including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services then make the final decision on whether to approve a resettlement application. After arrival in the US, refugees are typically served by NGOs who help them find jobs and housing.
In recent years, American refugee policy has drastically shifted in conjunction with rising nativist and nationalist sentiment. For decades, the United States had admitted more refugees than all other countries combined, under administrations and Congresses of both parties. However, President Donald Trump decimated the refugee admissions program as part of his xenophobic “America First” agenda- in 2017, President Trump took executive action to pause the entire refugee resettlement program and suspend admissions of Syrian refugees along with all noncitizen entry from seven Muslim-majority nations. In subsequent years, Trump progressively slashed both the overall admissions cap and the number of refugees actually admitted by creating a bureaucratic bottleneck, increasing the time needed to process and complete each resettlement application. During his administration’s four years in office, President Trump lowered refugee admissions by 85%, overseeing the lowest admissions ceilings and some of the lowest actual admissions in the resettlement program’s entire 40-year history.
President Biden campaigned on increasing the number of refugees admitted to the US, justifying it on humanitarian grounds, as a tool for diplomacy, and as an expression of American democratic values. However, on April 16, 2021, Biden signed an order limiting admissions to the Trump-era cap of 15,000. Several weeks later, after uproar from humanitarian advocates and Democrats in Congress, Biden raised the cap to 62,500. Reporting suggests that the vacillation may be due to political considerations, as the administration grapples with a surge of unaccompanied migrants at the southern US border and an accompanying public relations challenge.
Improving American capability to resettle refugees is urgent: in 2020, the number of people forcibly displaced reached 80 million worldwide, including 26 million refugees- the highest levels seen since the Second World War. Several policy initiatives can help the Biden administration fulfil its promise of increasing refugee admissions to the US. These would provide assistance to some of the most vulnerable people and groups around the world while reorienting America as a place of refuge after years of xenophobic rhetoric from highest-level policymakers.
Regardless of the overall admissions cap, infrastructure must be in place to ensure that refugees are resettled effectively within the US once approved. Funding for NGO partner resettlement agencies is determined by the number of refugees they process. Trump-era admissions cuts triggered funding reductions that led to over 100 resettlement offices closing.
Pro-refugee legislators from both parties should cooperate to pursue a bill mandating a baseline level of admissions each year and requiring exceptions to be specifically authorized by Congress. Insulating the refugee program from short-term political pressures in this way would end the dramatic fluctuations in admissions and funding seen in recent years and stabilize the provision of resettlement services. Biden has signaled his support for such an effort, as well as proposals to make higher education visas available to speed up entry of refugees.
In addition, US policymakers should prepare for the future by acknowledging the growing role of climate in mass migration: climate effects on agriculture, sea level rise, and extreme weather may drive more than 30 million migrants to US borders over the next 30 years. American legislators should consider expanding the legal definition of “refugee,” or creating a parallel resettlement program, to include those who have lost their homes due to rising seas or are forced to flee deadly droughts. The Center for Strategic and International Studies sketches a potential Climate Migrant Resettlement Program, which would build on the existing Temporary Protected Status designation that provides refuge to foreign nationals displaced by disaster or conflict. Providing safe haven to those seeking refuge from climate effects, currently under-protected by legal frameworks, would ease the strain on existing asylum and refugee resettlement systems as climate change displaces more and more populations in the coming decades.
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