Immigration experts and policymakers say Biden will have no legal obstacles to resetting the limit as soon as he takes office. But after four years of historically few refugee arrivals, accepting a surge would require significant resources, time and political compromise.
The executive branch has the unique authority to determine the country’s annual limit for refugees.
Refugee admission — which Trump had invoked, without evidence, as a source of terrorism — was one of his first targets in office, and the president initially shut down the refugee program at the same time that he tried to block all citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. That, too, was subject to legal challenges and court interventions.
But Trump was able to decrease refugee arrivals from nearly 85,000 in fiscal 2016 to fewer than 12,000 in fiscal 2020 by setting a low limit, employing the travel ban to block entry of those fleeing the world’s worst crises — such as the civil wars in Syria and Yemen — and significantly expanding vetting and paperwork requirements to create a limbo that could last months or years.
Trump also, in 2019, redefined the priority categories for refugee admissions, transforming the U.S. resettlement system from one that gave precedence to the needy — and thus tended to offer the most spots to people from Africa and the Middle East — to one that created easier pathways for Christians, many of them White and from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
“It is going to be hard,” said Nazanin Ash, the vice president of global policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, one of the leading refugee assistance and resettlement organizations. “The destruction brought by the Trump administration was extreme with respect to the refugee admissions program, and they really looked at every possible way to massively alter the demographics and reduce the population and the pipeline of people coming to the United States.”
Experts say Biden will need to go far beyond raising the limit to return the flow of refugee admissions to what it once was; he also will need to remove the existing priority categories, revise the Trump-imposed vetting system and reallocate resources.
“There are these extreme vetting protocols in place right now, and there is really no oversight. So the end result is just delays,” said Wa’el Alzayat, the chief executive of the Emgage Foundation, a Muslim American civic engagement organization, and a Middle East policy adviser in the Obama administration.
Alzayat said it took a full year “just to get the wheels turning” to markedly raise the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States from 350 to 10,000 a year near the end of the Obama administration, even when there was a strong will to do so and a vast resettlement system was in place. The challenge, he said, was logistics, coordination among agencies and efforts to streamline the vetting process.
He said the government would “need a surge of people” to adjudicate cases quickly.
But the number of refugees admitted in the past four years has been so small that scores of resettlement offices have shut down nationwide, and many of the U.S. officials tasked with interviewing refugees abroad have been diverted to other roles.
“What has happened now is that the number has gotten so low that a lot of the refugee officers quit in disgust, a lot of them have been pulled into asylum work,” said one Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to speak publicly. “So you have a diminished number of refugee officers working on it now.”
The ongoing surge of coronavirus cases in the United States and globally, and the associated economic slump — including the high domestic unemployment rate — are also likely to hinder the refugee resettlement process. And Biden’s campaign website does not rank the refugee program among his priorities for his first 100 days in office.