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‘Decimated’ refugee infrastructure threatens a key Biden promise

Rebuilding system after Trump era will take time and resources

Activists protest U.S. refugee policies at a rally in Washington in 2019, when refugee admissions were at historic lows.
Activists protest U.S. refugee policies at a rally in Washington in 2019, when refugee admissions were at historic lows. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House promised to dramatically increase the number of refugees it resettles, marking a shift from historically low refugee admissions numbers under the Trump administration.

But even President Joe Biden noted a difficult road ahead when he recently raised the cap to 62,500 refugees for the current fiscal year — and admitted “the sad truth” that the country won’t be able to meet that goal.

The White House’s acknowledgement of how tough it will be to keep a key campaign promise underscores the extent of the challenges.

“Our review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program we inherited from the previous administration revealed it was even more decimated than we’d thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward the numbers to which we’ve committed,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Resettling refugees depends on an international pipeline and a complicated domestic infrastructure involving both government agencies and nonprofit resettlement groups. Nearly everyone slashed their staff and resources when the U.S. resettled only a few thousand refugees every year under President Donald Trump. All those things will take time to rebuild.

“Ramping up refugee admissions … is certainly easier said than done. It is a massive challenge,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a major resettlement agency, noting that administrations rarely reach their admissions ceilings.

Time is running short — fiscal 2021 ends on Sept. 30. By the end of April, the U.S. had resettled just 2,334 refugees, leaving mere months to resettle tens of thousands of people.

Years of decline  

Refugee resettlement declined during the Trump administration due to lower annual presidential determinations as well as restrictive regional allocations that limited refugee arrivals from many majority Muslim nations.

Fewer than 12,000 refugees were resettled in fiscal 2020, compared with nearly 85,000 in fiscal 2016, the final year of the Obama administration.

These reductions prompted a drawback of resources within both the government and the resettlement agencies, leading to far less staff able to support a higher number of refugee arrivals.

“It’s been a very demoralizing time,” said Bob Carey, who directed the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama administration. “Finding the people who have the historical knowledge and the relationships — it’s going to take some time.”

It will also take time to rebuild relationships with all the entities in local communities that played a role in resettlement: landlords who rented apartments to refugees, employers who hired them, volunteer networks that provided them transportation for medical appointments.

“There is a lot of planning that needs to work around numbers of expected arrivals — implications for the school system, implications for health and mental health providers, around service providers, around employment services, English for speakers of other languages, and coordination with community groups,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former top official at the Administration for Children and Families, an HHS agency.

Meanwhile, global refugee resettlement needs remain as high as ever: According to estimates from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, more than 1.4 million refugees are in need of “durable” resettlement beyond the countries where they first seek asylum. Tens of thousands are waiting in the pipeline to be resettled in the U.S.

Building back up

A refugee’s journey begins with a referral by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, or by a nongovernmental organization. Then, cases are transferred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which encompasses multiple government agencies within the departments of State, Homeland Security and HHS, and determines whether a refugee is eligible for resettlement.

Refugees must undergo interviews and pass a medical test and security screening before they can be approved for resettlement, a process managed by several U.S. nonprofit resettlement agencies.

Advocates say the government must expand remote interviews that could speed up the application process — particularly during a pandemic still raging in many parts of the world.

They’re also urging the government to address a severe backlog within the Refugee Access Verification Unit, an additional processing step for family reunification cases. They want to see the security clearance process expedited, to facilitate approval of cases put on hold under Trump’s stringent security vetting requirements.

“Current delays in SAO [Security Advisory Opinion] processing mean that entire nationalities with significant needs for resettlement are in effect restricted from meaningful resettlement consideration,” Refugee Council USA wrote in a document outlining major pain points within the refugee processing system.

A State Department spokesperson said the government is working to address many of these problems, citing a pilot program using teleconference technology to conduct interviews, ongoing collaboration with the National Vetting Center Governance Board to identify more efficient ways to vet refugees, and expanded hiring.

Quickly ramping up capacity is also hamstrung by the formula through which the government reimburses resettlement agencies. Currently, funding is provided on a per capita basis, although the State Department announced in April a change for the next fiscal year that would remove some administrative costs from the per capita budget.

The system makes it difficult for resettlement agencies, whose funding spiraled under the low Trump-era admissions numbers, to quickly respond to fluctuations in refugee arrivals.

“The more refugee arrivals we have, the more resources go to resettlement agencies,” said Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, another major resettlement agency.

Impact of the border

Advocates stress that refugee resettlement capacity should not be conflated with the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Biden administration has set up multiple emergency intake sites to accommodate historically high numbers of child migrant arrivals.

When Biden initially announced he would keep the Trump-era refugee admissions cap of 15,000 — before backtracking amid widespread outcry — he hinted that resources needed at the border were being drawn from the refugee resettlement program.

“The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people,” he said in April. “We couldn’t do two things at once.”

Funding for the Unaccompanied Children Program, which manages custody of child migrants at the border, and the HHS portion of the refugee admissions program, which reimburses states for refugee-related expenses, are indeed part of a single appropriation within HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement and can be internally redirected.

But the two efforts have separate staff, and advocates are quick to argue that the government should be able to handle both simultaneously.

“America has always been able to walk and chew gum,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.

Acknowledging that reaching Biden’s refugee admissions goal this year will be difficult, refugee advocates point to what they hope will be a yearslong effort to rebuild the nation’s resettlement capacity.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he aims to resettle 125,000 refugees in fiscal 2022, his first full year in office, and his administration’s budget blueprint for next year added funding to meet that goal.

“It’s not about, necessarily, the number in and of itself,” Owen said. “The real work is actually investing in expanding refugee processing and speeding up adjudication, and making sure that we are actually resettling as many people this year as possible.”

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