Later this year, the United States will begin admitting tens of thousands more refugees than were permitted to enter during the Trump era. Under former President Donald Trump, the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. declined by a staggering 86 percent. President Joe Biden has talked of ultimately aiming for 125,000 refugee admissions per year, more than 10 times higher than the 11,814 admitted in 2020 and also higher than the number reached in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. This year, though, the target is more modest: The State Department estimates that slightly more than 62,000 refugees will be resettled in the U.S. in 2021.
That numerical goal, however, doesn’t fully capture the change in priorities from one administration to the next. While Trump touted his “Muslim ban,” and made it all but impossible for residents of countries such as Syria and Iran to migrate to the U.S. — either as refugees or via other visa processes — Biden’s State Department says it will be accepting refugees from a wide range of regions, including 22,000 from Africa and 13,000 from the Near East and South Asia.
For longtime resettlement workers in the U.S., this is a breath of fresh air after four years of relentless attacks on the principle of resettlement and on the resettlement infrastructure. In Sacramento, California, where I live, Mark Shetler of World Relief talked to me of how his organization alone is gearing up to resettle upward of 300 refugee families in the greater Sacramento area this year, most of them Syrians, Afghans and residents of various countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
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The great majority of these refugees, Shetler believes, will be arriving in the latter part of the year, once the agencies have gotten back up to speed again in Sacramento, a city that prior to Trump had become one of the country’s leading hubs for refugee resettlement.
Across the country, many refugee resettlement agencies will need to hire new staff and rehire longtime resettlement specialists who were laid off during the Trump years as funding for refugee resettlement cratered.
World Relief managed to salvage most of its positions in Sacramento, but nationally many offices laid staff off, and as a desperate cost-cutting measure, executives took a 50 percent pay cut, says Shetler.
Other groups, such as Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and the International Rescue Committee, fared just as badly. In some cities, pared-down resettlement offices survived, albeit barely. In other cities, such as Akron, Ohio, entire offices shuttered.
Rebuilding the refugee resettlement infrastructure — which evolved and grew over the more than seven decades between the end of World War II and the election of Trump — will also involve reaching out anew to local communities, which historically have played a crucial role in helping new refugee families find their footing.
Shetler talks of outreach to local faith groups, of community members collecting furniture and other necessities for the new arrivals, and of “good neighbor” chains being established, in which volunteers divvy up responsibilities for helping newly arrived families with everything from navigating medical and educational bureaucracies to helping them find local supermarkets and buying toys for the children.
The web of community volunteers and professional staff around resettlement of vulnerable, often traumatized, refugees is a delicate one.
Anahita Panahi, an organizer at We Are All America who works with refugees in California, told Truthout, “There’s an absolute sigh of relief that Biden has followed through his promise of raising the refugee admissions goal to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022” but added that organizers on the ground are still concerned about how to rebuild the dismantled resettlement infrastructure across the U.S.
“Hundreds of resettlement offices closed down during the Trump administration, and with a proposed increase of refugees to arrive in the U.S, there must be investments made to revive the resettlement infrastructure to accommodate arriving refugees,” Panahi said.
There are, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 80 million displaced people globally, of whom more than 26 million are categorized as refugees. Only a small fraction of these people will ever make it to the U.S. And, before they arrive, the few who do make it to the U.S. will have almost certainly spent years fleeing wars, brutal government crackdowns, religious persecution and other traumas. Many will have lived under harrowing conditions in refugee camps. Many will have been shunted from one country to the next to the next before finally qualifying for resettlement. They often accumulate medical and mental health problems during this process, and, once they arrive in the U.S., need to be able to access resources to deal with these issues.
Trump’s deliberate wrecking-ball policy made the lives of all of these refugees even harder than they already were. Refugee advocates are now ramping up efforts to urge the Biden administration to make good on its promises to reinvigorate the Refugee Resettlement Program, in order to reverse the damage of the Trump era — and, hopefully, also exceed the Obama administration’s resettlement limits.