Looking to History as Inspiration for Evolving Refugee Resettlement Policies

by  Madeline Culbreth, Staff Editor

President Biden has announced that he will be raising the annual cap on the number of refugees the United States will take in to as many as 125,000.[1] This is a stark turnaround from the Trump administration, which cut the annual cap to 15,000[2]. However, while President Biden’s plan would accept more than eight times the number of refugees accepted under President Trump[3], the goal is nowhere near the United States’ historic refugee ceilings.[4] When the Refugee Act of 1980 was enacted, the annual ceiling set for the refugee resettlement program was approximately 230,000.[5] Within that cap, the United States resettled more than 207,000 refugees in 1980.[6]

Even with diminishing refugee resettlement ceilings, the United States is one of the largest refugee resettlement countries in the world.[7] There are nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. that work with the government to place and resettle refugees.[8] These national agencies have faced staff cuts due to the diminished needs for their services during the Trump administration.[9] One of the nine organizations, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is trying to rebuild their program from the ground up.[10] The organization had to close 17 of its 48 resettlement offices because of financial constraints due to the cuts to refugee admissions.[11] “In the last four years under Trump, the refugee resettlement program hit rock bottom. If you think of the program as a car, not only did the Trump administration slam on the brakes, it tried intentionally to dismantle the engine,” said Krish O.Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.[12] President Biden will have to overcome institutional deficits to fulfill his goal of bolstering the United States refugee resettlement system.

Raising the ceiling is the first critical step in rebuilding. “Raising the ceiling will literally be lifesaving for hundreds of thousands [of people] fleeing violence and persecution because of the color of their skin, how they worship or who they love,” urged Krish O’Mara Vignarajah.[13] Unfortunately, the refugee program in its current form is not currently equipped to welcome an influx of refugees fleeing disaster.[14] Beyond slashing the annual refugee ceiling, the Trump administration also closed posts abroad and reassigned the refugee officers stationed there.[15] The Coronavirus pandemic also created a backlog and grounded refugees abroad.[16] The funding for the State Department’s refugee program has been set at $3 billion annually for the last 6 years.  However, “a governmentwide effort to process and resettle people projected it had only $814 million in available funds this year, a reflection of how few people were likely to be welcomed into the United States.”[17]

Looking Forward: President Biden’s early efforts are helping to lay the foundation for a complete turnaround in the United States’ refugee resettlement program. Barbara L. Strack, a former chief of the refugee affairs division at Citizenship and Immigration Services, says that President Biden’s early effort “sends the concrete signal to all the operational players that they need to start gearing up.”[18] We ought not to simply look to the most recent administrations as guidance for how the refugee resettlement program can grow. Under President Obama, the United States admitted 84,994 refugees, which was a 17 year high.[19] Although the Biden administration should try to return to those levels of refugee resettlement, a look at the U.S.’s resettlement history shows even more room for growth and development. The Refugee Act of 1980 allows the president, in consultation with Congress, to set the annual number of refugee admissions.[20] The goal of the act was to increase the number of refugees who could be admitted each year.[21] Setting high ceilings aligns with the U.S.’s historical trends, demonstrates commitment to the ideals of refugee resettlement, and allows a continuous path for growth. Hopefully the Biden administration can continue to raise the annual ceiling of refugees allowed into the U.S. while shoring up the institutional structures, in accordance with the law and history of the United States.

[1] Charles Davis, Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year — more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump, Insider (Feb. 4, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-calls-for-accepting-as-many-as-125000-refugees-year-2021-2.

[2] Charles Davis, Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year — more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump, Insider (Feb. 4, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-calls-for-accepting-as-many-as-125000-refugees-year-2021-2.

[3] Charles Davis, Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year — more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump, Insider (Feb. 4, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-calls-for-accepting-as-many-as-125000-refugees-year-2021-2.

[4] U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present, Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-annual-refugee-resettlement-ceilings-and-number-refugees-admitted-united (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

[5] U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present, Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-annual-refugee-resettlement-ceilings-and-number-refugees-admitted-united (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

[6] Charles Davis, Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year — more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump, Insider (Feb. 4, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-calls-for-accepting-as-many-as-125000-refugees-year-2021-2.

[7] March 2020 Refugee Resettlement Facts, UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/resettlement-in-the-united-states.html (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

[8] March 2020 Refugee Resettlement Facts, UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/resettlement-in-the-united-states.html (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

[9] Charles Davis, Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year — more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump, Insider (Feb. 4, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-calls-for-accepting-as-many-as-125000-refugees-year-2021-2.

[10] Franco Ordonez, Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump’s ‘America First’ In 1st Foreign Policy Address, NPR (Feb. 4, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2021/02/04/963650814/america-next-biden-to-talk-about-foreign-policy-as-russia-myanmar-crises-flare.

[11] NYTimes

[12] Franco Ordonez, Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump’s ‘America First’ In 1st Foreign Policy Address, NPR (Feb. 4, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2021/02/04/963650814/america-next-biden-to-talk-about-foreign-policy-as-russia-myanmar-crises-flare.

[13] Franco Ordonez, Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump’s ‘America First’ In 1st Foreign Policy Address, NPR (Feb. 4, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2021/02/04/963650814/america-next-biden-to-talk-about-foreign-policy-as-russia-myanmar-crises-flare.

[14] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[15] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[16] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[17] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[18] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[19] Lara Jakes et al., Biden to Welcome More Refugees, but Far From All Will Get In, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/us/politics/biden-immigration-refugee-policy.html.

[20] Refugee Timeline: Immigration and Naturalization Service Refugee Law and Policy Timeline, 1981-2003, USCIS, https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/history-office-and-library/featured-stories-from-the-uscis-history-office-and-library/refugee-timeline (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

[21] Refugee Timeline: Immigration and Naturalization Service Refugee Law and Policy Timeline, 1981-2003, USCIS, https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/history-office-and-library/featured-stories-from-the-uscis-history-office-and-library/refugee-timeline (last visited Feb. 11, 2021).

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