The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the refugee cap has evolved, and who it has allowed in

Khaled Assaf, center, and Mariam Rastanawi, right, pose for a portrait with their daughter and grandchildren at their home in Indianapolis on March 26. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

There haven’t been many occasions since Jan. 20 for the Democratic left to stridently oppose President Biden, but he offered them one last month when his staff floated the idea that he might not increase the limit on refugees the United States would allow in this year. The idea that Biden — who on the campaign trail had chastised his predecessor for rejecting refugee admissions — might keep in place former president Donald Trump’s historically low limit was anathema to many Americans, including Democratic legislators. The Biden administration quickly backtracked, telling reporters that Biden would release a new proposal by mid-May.

Mid-May came early. On Monday, the administration announced Biden would lift the limit to 62,500 refugees for fiscal 2021, which ends Sept. 30. This was the level that he’d first proposed for the fiscal year back in February and so, in that sense, doesn’t mark a dramatic change.

“[R]aising the number of admissions permissible for FY 2021 to 62,500 is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest,” Biden wrote in a memorandum, though it’s unlikely that level will be reached. As of the end of March, the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center had tallied only about 2,000 refugee admissions so far this fiscal year. In fiscal years 2018 through 2020, the three for which Trump had sole authority, only 64,000 refugees were admitted to the United States. That was 20,000 fewer than were admitted in fiscal 2016.

The slowdown in admissions under Trump — and specifically, the formal reduction in the federal refugee ceiling — stands out in recent history.

Unsurprisingly, geopolitics have often spurred admissions. In 1980, the country was just beginning to see a slowdown in admissions from Southeast Asia, in part a function of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union spurred admissions to the United States. A bit later, it was the war in Kosovo.

Refugee admissions slowed in 2002 and 2003, following a hold put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (Notice that the cap wasn’t reduced, just the number of admissions.) Soon, the wars that followed those attacks helped drive refugee resettlements, as did the civil war in Syria.

Upon being elected in 2016, Trump quickly moved to cut off refugee admissions, in keeping with his nativist campaign rhetoric and his pledge to block admissions from majority-Muslim countries.

The result was a situation in which Biden could announce an annual cap that is the lowest in more than 30 years and a cap that the country almost certainly won’t meet — but still be able to announce a dramatic increase over his predecessor.