WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday said he plans to sign an executive order to rebuild the United States’ refugee resettlement program “to help meet the unprecedented global need” after four years of rollbacks under President Donald Trump.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged,” Biden said during a speech at the State Department.
The United States admitted 11,814 refugees between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020 — lower than any other year since the start of the refugee program decades ago, and 14% of the number admitted in the last year of the Obama administration. Some states last year counted their newly arrived refugees in the single digits.
Biden said Thursday that he would raise the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, a figure more in line with the 2017 cap of 110,000 set by President Barack Obama a few months before he left office. Trump, who won election campaigning on an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee agenda, promptly reduced the cap.
Increasing the annual cap will not be enough to reopen the valve to actual refugee arrivals on U.S. soil; the effort will take considerable time and resources, experts and resettlement groups say. Biden signaled a recognition of that in his speech and said he would ask the State Department to “consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”
“I am quite pleased with this news,” said Hans Van de Weerd, vice president for resettlement, asylum and integration at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee aid organization. He said he was confident in Biden’s commitment to restoring the system to its pre-Trump functioning.
“But realistically we know that it takes time to restart a system that was so eroded by the Trump administration, and we also know it will take time because of the COVID restrictions,” he added.
On the federal level, funding and staff resources probably will need to be redirected within the Departments of State and Homeland Security, which handle the bulk of refugee screening and processing, experts said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, for example, will be dispatched to resume the initial interviews with refugees in the field, often in or near refugee camps, an activity that was significantly reduced in scope under Trump and then suspended in its entirety amid the pandemic.
The security screening of refugees is rigorous and time-consuming. Refugees must submit to interviews, background checks and medical exams through a multiagency process, much of which was altered by Trump administration memos and a reorienting of resources to other issues that the former president prioritized, such as immigration enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Once refugees are cleared by the U.S. government to come to the United States, they are resettled with the help of nongovernmental resettlement organizations, many of them faith-based charities. These organizations work in partnership with the federal government, placing refugee families in local housing and helping them to connect with schools and employers.
That network’s federal funding is contingent on the number of refugees it resettles and was devastated as arrivals slowed to a trickle under Trump. Groups that do resettlement work, such as Catholic Charities USA and the International Rescue Committee, closed or temporarily shuttered offices because of a lack of refugees.
In Spokane, Wash., Mark Finney said his staff at World Relief, a Christian charity, shrank from 14 individuals dedicated to refugee resettlement to two over the course of Trump’s four-year tenure.
“And it takes a lot of time to get people operating in that capacity. So it’s going to be a process of rebuilding the team to get that kind of knowledge and experience to really know what they’re doing,” Finney said.
“The reality is, to do this work and well, you need all of these tentacles out in the locations where people are receiving refugees, just to support new arrivals,” said Karen Monken, director of prearrival and initial resettlement at HIAS, another resettlement group.
That includes not just local staffers, she said, but community connections. Resettlement offices that might have previously maintained active relationships with local housing authorities and employers have let many of those relationships lapse with few to no refugees to house or employ.
“So all of those things have to be built back up, and they’re really not easy to do,” she said.
Trump also steadily implemented policies during his time in office, from the notorious travel ban — popularly known to critics as a “Muslim ban” — during his first week in office to smaller scale internal guidance that fundamentally shifted the demographics of those refugees accepted for resettlement. The number of Muslims and Black refugees decreased significantly, while the number of Christian refugees, many of them from former Soviet republics without major refugee crises, rose in their place.
Although Biden did not mention the priority categories explicitly in his speech from the State Department, resettlement officials said they were confident that his revival of the program would return it to its “humanitarian” focus, opening the resettlement option once again to thousands of Syrians, Somalis, Iranians and others who were largely shut out under Trump.
Biden indicated Thursday that he would also seek to raise the refugee admissions cap for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30 — a number set historically low at 15,000 by Trump last fall — but that he will consult Congress in that mission.
A higher cap probably will meet resistance from immigration hawks and Trump supporters. But the ongoing pandemic and a hindered U.S. job market could provide more sizable obstacles to escalating resettlement significantly before the fall.
Lora Ries — a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank who served briefly as the Trump administration’s acting deputy chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security — warned that expansion of the refugee program will come at the expense of other Biden immigration priorities, such as managing the asylum system on the southern border.
“The refugee number — it cannot be looked at in a silo,” she said.