Refugee Admissions Still Slumping Under Biden

A group of migrant families from Central America walk alongside the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in January 2023. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Dauda Sesay watched in horror 30 years ago as armed rebels in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war overran his hometown, rounded up five of his friends, and amputated their hands. His hand was under the blade next when his father ran in to plead for the boys’ lives, but the rebels killed him instead. Sesay escaped with a gunshot wound in his left leg and an injured right hand.

He spent 10 years in a Gambian refugee camp before coming to the United States as a refugee, becoming a citizen, founding the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants, and serving on the board of the advocacy group Refugee Congress.

“I would have preferred to stay or remain in my homeland,” Sesay told a panel of senators meeting Wednesday to examine the current state of the U.S. refugee program. “I had no other choice but to leave. The refugee program was my only hope.”

Refugee advocates like Sesay are asking the Biden administration to do more to rebuild the United States’ languishing refugee program. Despite Biden’s promises to the contrary, admissions have remained low and infrastructure necessary to boost refugee admissions has eroded.

“We are at risk of falling short of our ideals,” Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California and chair of the Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety subcommittee, said at Wednesday’s hearing. But he was light on criticism of the current administration, largely attributing the low numbers to Biden’s predecessor.

Witnesses at the hearing agreed. “In large part this decline can be attributed to policies put in place by the prior administration, combined with the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic,” William Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told lawmakers. 

Refugees are those who have fled their home country due to persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or for belonging to a particular social group. Refugees undergo a rigorous vetting process that can often take years. Once they are granted refugee status and arrive in the U.S., they are authorized to work. Local, privately run refugee resettlement agencies welcome new arrivals with a caseworker and often local nonprofits or churches connected to a local resettlement program. From there they can apply for a green card and eventually full citizenship.

The decline began during the Trump administration, which cut down on all legal forms of immigration, including the refugee program. In 2017, Trump set the refugee ceiling at 50,000, down from the Obama administration’s cap of 85,000. He set the number lower each successive year, and by 2021 the refugee cap stood at 15,000, with only 11,841 refugees actually admitted.

After taking office, Biden initially renewed Trump’s refugee cap of 15,000 in April 2021, but after taking flak for reneging on a campaign promise, he reversed course and raised it to 62,500. Still, the program only admitted 11,411 refugees that year and hasn’t increased much since. Despite a new goal to admit 125,000 refugees, the actual number last fiscal year fell far short: just more than 25,000. Through the first five months of this fiscal year, the U.S. has resettled around 12,307 refugees, according to Department of State data

“When Biden took over we had so much hope,” Sesay told The Dispatch in an interview after his testimony. But the results have spoken for themselves, with the administration not hitting the 125,000 cap.

The Biden administration is making a few strides. A State Department official told U.S. News that it has increased staffing for overseas refugee support centers to 2,000 workers, up from about 1,000 in 2021, for example. In January the administration also launched a private sponsorship program called the Welcome Corps to bolster refugee admissions. It allows Americans to vouch for a refugee and help them find housing and jobs in a new community. The goal is to welcome 5,000 refugees this fiscal year.

Yet the other forms of support and funding (both private and government) are still suffering. One-third of local resettlement reception and placement programs in the U.S. have been closed or suspended, according to a 2019 analysis by Refugee Council USA. Many longtime refugee case workers who were let go or left during the Trump years are now unwilling to go back. “Some of them don’t want to come again because they don’t know what’s going to be the future when another administration takes over,” Sesay said.

Much of the Biden administration’s focus has been on helping people flee crises, in Afghanistan and Ukraine for example, but such initiatives lack the support structure, security, and track record of successful integration of the refugee program, experts said. During the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, around 84,000 Afghans were admitted through the humanitarian parole process in 2021, though the administration received criticism for failing to plan ahead for a more orderly evacuation of Afghan allies, leading to a chaotic withdrawal. Parolees are processed and screened at military bases, usually in third countries, before coming to the United States. But the designation typically expires within two years (unless specifically extended by Congress). Parolees can apply for asylum or another more permanent status but now face yearslong backlogs.

Jennie Murray, president of the National Immigration Forum, said the parole option is a “great tool in the tool belt” whose strengths are to “flex up in a huge humanitarian moment” to respond to crises.

But, she added, “We don’t want to see refugee resettlement fall behind.”

Neither does Sesay. “I have been hopeful since the day I left my country,” he said. “We hope that this president will keep his promise.”

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