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Biden seeks to restore ‘badly damaged’ refugee resettlement program

President Biden speaks before signing an executive order on Jan. 25.
President Biden speaks before signing an executive order on Jan. 25. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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President Biden on Thursday signed 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 barely 14 percent 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.

Home to 14 refugees, a Vermont city still grapples with the resettlement debate

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, and promptly slashed by Trump, who won election campaigning on an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee agenda.

But simply increasing the annual cap will not be enough to reopen the valve to actual refugee arrivals on U.S. soil, as 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, the vice president for resettlement, asylum and integration at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee aid organization, adding that 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 (USCIS) officers, for example, will need to be dispatched to resume the initial interviews that they conduct with refugees in the field, often in or near refugee camps, an activity that was dramatically 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 internal guidance 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 decimated as arrivals slowed to a trickle under Trump. Groups that do resettlement work, such as Catholic Charities USA and the International Rescue Committee, were forced to close or temporarily shutter offices because of a lack of refugees.

In Spokane, Wash., Mark Finney said his staff at World Relief, a Christian charity, shrank from 14 people dedicated to refugee resettlement to just 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 pre-arrival and initial resettlement at HIAS, another resettlement group.

That includes not just local staff but community connections, she said. Resettlement offices that might have 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.

Ukrainians are now one of the top groups resettled in U.S. under Trump administration

Although Biden didn’t mention the priority categories explicitly in his speech at the State Department, resettlement officials said they were confident his revival of the program would return it to its “humanitarian” focus, opening the resettlement option 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 would meet resistance from immigration hawks and supporters of Trump. But the ongoing pandemic and a crippled U.S. jobs market could provide more sizable obstacles to escalating resettlement significantly before the fall.

Lora Ries, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and 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.