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Biden to double refugee cap despite slow resettlement pace

Refugee advocates say the president’s campaign pledge must be undergirded by steps to strengthen resettlement system

A family from Venezuela walks into the migrant camp under the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 18.
A family from Venezuela walks into the migrant camp under the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 18. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden would fulfill a longtime promise by raising the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for fiscal 2022, but reaching that number could prove difficult after a year on track to have the lowest resettlement numbers in recent history.

The United States had resettled 7,637 refugees through the end of August, according to government data, despite Biden’s 62,500-person goal for fiscal 2021, which ends Sept. 30. That means the U.S. is unlikely to even reach 11,814, the number of refugees resettled in fiscal 2020, the final full year of the Trump administration.

Refugee advocates dismayed by the current low admissions level say Biden’s promise must be undergirded by concrete steps to strengthen the complicated public-private resettlement system, largely dismantled by the Trump administration.

“Raising this cap without dedicating significant resources, personnel, and measures to streamline the process would be largely symbolic,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the resettlement organization Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in a statement. “It is vital that we see more refugee processing officers out in the field conducting the necessary interviews.”

On Monday, the State Department announced the administration’s intent to raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for fiscal 2022. While on the campaign trail, Biden promised to raise the cap to that level for his first full year in office, a pledge he has since made repeatedly. But Biden faced criticism shortly after taking office for being slow to raise the admissions ceiling for the remainder of fiscal 2021. He eventually increased it to the current 62,500.

While Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., praised Biden’s latest announcement in a statement, he said he was “disappointed” in the projected refugee admissions number for this year, but “I acknowledge the challenges the Biden Administration inherited.”

The refugee cap had significantly been reduced every year President Donald Trump was in office until it had sunk to 15,000, the lowest cap since the current resettlement program began in 1980.

The refugee admissions picture is slightly complicated by the arrival of thousands of at-risk Afghans since Afghanistan’s collapse in August. Many are in line for special immigrant visas, which do not count toward overall refugee numbers, while others have been granted humanitarian parole rather than traditional refugee benefits.

In July, the State Department announced a priority refugee status for Afghans likely to face risk under the Taliban regime but without special immigrant visa qualifications, and many parolees are expected to qualify for that status, though final numbers are not clear.

The State Department in its report to Congress on the proposed admissions goal promised “enhanced access” to the U.S. refugee programs for Afghans imperiled by their association with the U.S.

The proposed regional admissions goals would sharply increase the number of expected arrivals from “Near East/South Asia,” from a projected level of 13,000 to 35,000. It also would accept up to 40,000 refugees from Africa, 15,000 from East Asia, 10,000 from Europe and Central Asia, and 15,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean. The remaining 10,000 refugees may be from anywhere in the world.

The State Department is planning for the likelihood that ramping up refugee admissions program capacity to meet Biden’s goal could be a lengthy process with uncertain results.

The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, according to the report, will only fund the domestic refugee program and its overseas components at a level supporting 65,000 refugees at the start of fiscal 2022 “in the interest of careful stewardship of taxpayer resources,” as well as operational constraints related to COVID-19.

“Those funding levels will be re-evaluated and increased as appropriate as the year progresses and it becomes clearer how much progress can be made against the target,” the report said.

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