WASHINGTON – As the Biden administration struggles to contain illegal crossings along the Mexico border, it has fallen behind on efforts to ramp up refugee admissions, process green cards and boost some of the other legal channels that the White House has promoted as pillars of its immigration strategy.
The United States is on pace to admit the fewest number of refugees on record during the government’s current fiscal year, the latest statistics show. Despite the president’s decision in May to raise the refugee cap to 65,000, only 6,246 have been admitted as of July 31. Officials blame the pandemic for limiting U.S. consular services abroad.
The administration’s efforts to rapidly boost refugee admissions are now overshadowed by an urgent scramble to assist tens of thousands of Afghan allies and their family members attempting to flee the Taliban. Roughly 70,000 are seeking Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) to come to the United States, and critics in both parties have blamed Biden officials for moving too slowly before the fall of Kabul.
Other legal immigration pathways have also lagged. Immigrant advocates and business groups point to more than 100,000 unused employment-based green card slots that are set to expire by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Roughly 60,000 immigrants who have been selected through the Diversity Visa lottery since 2020 are at risk of losing the chance to come to America legally, many because they cannot get a consular interview.
Felicia Escobar, chief of staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that runs the country’s legal immigration system, said employees have worked diligently to clear backlogs that accumulated during pandemic closures last year.
“Covid has really had a huge impact on the work,” she said. “We’ve slowly been chipping away at challenges, but it’s a process, and it’s not something that can happen overnight,” she said.
Covid-related closures of USCIS processing centers created a backlog of nearly 1 million cases, Escobar said, in part because immigrants could not submit the biometric information to move their applications forward. Biden officials have streamlined the process, Escobar said, so data already on file with USCIS would not need to be resubmitted.
USCIS has completed 732,000 citizenship naturalizations as of Aug. 13, putting the agency on pace to reach pre-pandemic levels, according to the most recent figures.
The Trump administration made scores of procedural and administrative changes at USCIS, and Escobar said it has taken time for Biden officials to study them and decide which ones to roll back. Ur Jaddou, Biden’s appointee to be USCIS director, was confirmed by the Senate this month, and her arrival is expected to bring more stable leadership and a greater urgency to clear backlogs.
The Biden administration has also been consumed for months with an overwhelming migration surge across the southern border, while arguing its long-term effort to expand channels for migrants to come legally will reduce the number of people trying to enter unlawfully.
Biden officials insist their emergency response efforts at the border have little bearing on the agencies that handle legal immigration. But there is some overlap.
For example, among the more than 212,000 migrants who were taken into custody by U.S. border agents last month were record numbers of teens and children crossing without parents. Care and custody for the minors are the responsibility of the Health and Human Services agency that oversees refugee resettlement. Biden initially opted against raising this year’s refugee cap amid concern the agency was already too overwhelmed.
Outrage from immigrant and refugee advocates forced the president to make an about-face, and he raised the cap to 65,000 with a pledge to increase levels to 125,000 next year. Yet after an uptick in refugee admissions in June, admissions dipped again in July, and remain far below levels needed to exceed 2020s record-low totals, the latest data show.
“The general trend speaks to the challenges of rebuilding a system deliberately targeted by the previous administration, and reflects the reality of the ongoing pandemic, but the unfortunate truth is [Biden’s] two month delay in raising the admissions cap did no favors for restoring the system,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“Undoubtedly the Biden administration doesn’t want to be known for overseeing the lowest refugee admissions of all time, but that will be the narrative,” said Vignarajah. “We can’t drag feet or point to barriers when millions have been uprooted and the daily headlines speak to dire need in countries like Afghanistan.”
With flights to the United States restricted, some refugees have been unable to arrange travel, while the U.S. officials who conduct refugee interviews abroad have curtailed their trips.
“It’s highly disappointing, but it’s a confluence of really strong head winds, including the legacy of Trump decimating the refugee system and covid ravaging the world and limiting travel and clearances and all of those other things that explain why the refugee numbers are this low,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, an immigration analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
In contrast, Brown said, the administration has less of an excuse for its struggle to accelerate green card processing. “The unused green cards are entirely the result of the administration not focusing on clearing that backlog,” she said.
Biden officials have had their hands full along the southern border. The volume of migrants being detained who are from countries outside the region has been unprecedented, casting doubt on the administration’s plans to reduce illegal crossings with billions in aid and investment for Central America to address the “root causes” of emigration.
Homeland Security officials are predicting the highest number of border-crossings on record this year.
While most single adults are returned to Mexico under Title 42 of the U.S. public health code, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data from July show for first time that a majority of migrants were not sent back.
Immigration arrests in the interior of the United States have plunged under Biden, and the country’s fast-growing economy has meant migrants who are not quickly expelled to Mexico or deported home have a good chance of finding jobs that pay exponentially more than they can earn back home.
Businesses are struggling to find and retain workers despite boosting wages, and trade groups are urging the administration to fill unused green card slots before they expire at the end of the 2021 fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“The risk of having roughly 100,000 employment-based immigrant visas going unused by the end of this fiscal year would be a huge disappointment for many companies and their workers,” Jon Baselice, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Immigration Policy, said in an email to The Washington Post.
Groups that support more restrictive immigration policies say U.S. workers benefit from tighter visa policies. As the economy bounces back from the pandemic, more U.S. workers will rejoin the labor force, they say.
“Using immigration or increasing immigration in response to the demands of business lobbyists would be crutch, a way of avoiding systemic problems,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies.
U.S. workers have higher wages and more opportunity seek better jobs than they have had in a long time, Krikorian said. “Lots of people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic are apparently rethinking what they’re going to do. That’s fine – it’s good for workers to be empowered.”
But many of the businesses seeking to use the green cards are in technology, manufacturing and financial services that have high-skilled job openings they cannot fill currently, according to Baselice.
“American employers are very concerned that these ongoing processing delays may cause the well-educated and highly-trained workers they rely upon to leave their companies and pursue new employment opportunities outside the United States, putting them further in the hole in terms of confronting their workforce shortages,” said Baselice.