On June 20, 2020, World Refugee Day, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden made his most sweeping statement to date on how his administration would differ from his predecessor’s on the rights of migrants. Gone would be the “xenophobia and racism” that were “the unabashed tenets of Trump’s refugee and immigration policy.” Biden pledged to increase the cap on refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000 in his first year in office, and to restore “America’s historic role as leader in resettlement and defending the rights of refugees everywhere.”
His first year did not go as promised.
In the fiscal year ending in October 2021, the United States only resettled 11,411 refugees through regular channels. That’s 400 fewer than the previous fiscal year — which itself saw historically low resettlement — and far short of the 62,500 that Biden eventually ordered to be allowed to resettle in the United States in his first year in office. The U.S. has only released data for the first month of the new fiscal year, which shows 401 refugees have been resettled. Biden did finally raise the cap to 125,000, which, if met by the end of September 2022, would represent a massive turnaround not just over previous years, but of the last two decades: The last time the U.S. resettled more than 100,000 refugees was in 1994.
An additional 40,000 Afghans were temporarily allowed into the United States under a program called humanitarian parole, though they have not been issued green cards, and in most cases, their status expires in a year or two. Roughly 30,000 Afghans still housed on military bases are waiting to be allowed into the United States.
Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Program, told Truthout that Biden’s low numbers have a lot to do with Donald Trump’s successful dismantling of the resettlement infrastructure, but plenty of blame rests with the current administration as well. Biden’s “rhetoric of a human rights-centric approach to migration and foreign policy may not be an overarching, guiding principle, but one of many competing considerations,” Varghese said.
Other refugee advocates echo the degree to which Trump dismantled the refugee screening and support apparatuses. “The process of facilitating the resettlement of displaced persons into the U.S. is not like a light switch that can be turned on and off,” said Danielle Grigsby, director of external affairs at the Community Sponsorship Hub, which connects refugees with local sponsors and advocates. “The damage inflicted on the resettlement infrastructure will take significant time to repair.”
Biden’s immigration, asylum and refugee policies in general have been a decidedly mixed bag. His administration has followed through on some long-held progressive priorities, but many others have fallen to the side. In mid-December, the administration ended the longstanding U.S. policy of holding immigrant families in prison-like detention centers, according to Axios. “This is truly a good development, even though the treatment of migrant families writ large continues to be poor,” American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick tweeted in response to the news. Families can still be subject to confusing and arbitrary seeming court hearings and procedures, and many face significant economic hardships.
Even this development is tempered, as the Department of Homeland Security will continue to rely at least partially on using GPS-enabled ankle bracelets to surveil migrants. Advocates have long criticized the use of bracelets, saying they lead to stigma and are unnecessary to compel migrants to appear in court.
In other areas, the Biden administration is acting with near-total continuity to Trump. Biden continues to invoke a 1944 public health act called Title 42, which allows border agents to turn away asylum seekers without providing them an opportunity to make their case before a judge. Trump used the pandemic as an excuse to implement the rule, which many saw as a flimsy pretext to pursue his openly bigoted policies at the southern border. Biden has also reimplemented Trump’s so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, which denies asylum seekers the right to live in the United States while their case is pending. Legal scholars say this practice is illegal and in violation of U.S. treaty obligation and international law.
“It took a couple years for the Trump administration to figure out the nuances of the various immigration programs,” Varghese said. By the time Trump left office, though, he and his team had been very successful in jamming up almost every refugee and asylum assistance program in the executive branch. He and his top adviser, Stephen Miller, took an “all of the above” approach to limiting refugees and immigrants into the country. “That could be changing internal policies, it could be writing new regulations, it could be creating new policies and bureaucracies,” Varghese continued. “It could be by bankrupting [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services], it could be closing offices.”
The plight of refugees is no longer in the corporate headlines, but in 2016, the subject was a major political issue. Then-candidate Donald Trump demonized refugees and asylum seekers constantly, especially Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war. Following his lead, nearly every other Republican candidate promised restricted refugee resettlement to the United States.
Trump and Miller attempted to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the country in the administration’s first week in office. After initially striking the policy down, the Supreme Court ultimately gave the ban its blessing once North Korea and Venezuela were added. The outrage over the “Muslim ban” was perhaps only matched by the administration’s family separation policy at the southern border.
For all the criticism Trump deserves for dismantling the existing refugee apparatus, the Biden administration has not made rebuilding it a top priority, despite early promising signs. In February 2021, Biden issued Executive Order 14013, which called for the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program to be “rebuilt and expanded, commensurate with global need.” The order also revoked the discriminatory restrictions Trump had imposed, and called for additional reporting from the responsible executive agencies to determine what other changes could be made to address the refugee backlog.
Then, somewhat inexplicably to outside observers, in April, Biden refused to raise the resettlement cap from Trump’s historically low 15,000. He reversed course two weeks later, bowing to pressure from progressives and refugee advocates. His administration’s new policy to resettle 125,000 refugees by September signals, on paper at least, a renewed commitment to expanding the assistance program. Whether the executive branch will actually devote the resources, time and political efforts to achieve those goals remains to be seen.
The issue of refugee resettlement in the United States, and migrant humanitarian concerns throughout Europe and the rest of the world, will likely become more pressing with every year. The collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, along with continuing conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, all but ensure migration levels will stay at near-record highs for the foreseeable future.
Deeply intertwined with migration from conflict zones is migration driven by climate change. The United Nations predicts that 200 million people could be forced from their homes by 2050 due to rising temperatures, drought, flooding, extreme weather and conflict over resources.
The treatment of refugees has largely taken a backseat to other liberal priorities under Biden. The administration has prioritized its COVID response and push for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, two of Biden’s few major legislative accomplishments to date, all while trying to balance demands for increased attention to voting rights, gun control, health care costs, and other headline issues. The record-low number of refugees admitted barely made a blip in the mainstream media ecosystem. The State Department refused to comment on the record.
Varghese and other refugee advocates would like to see Biden take a holistic approach to migrant rights and assistance, and to redouble his administration’s efforts. “What we’ve seen is basically a political calculation” from Biden to treat refugee issues as “just one factor among many,” Varghese said. “The Trump administration was so singularly focused on paring down humanitarian immigration programs” that Biden’s measured approach “is not enough to combat four years of a whole-of-government approach to tear down refugee resettlement.”