President Joe Biden recently announced that the U.S. will allow the admission of up to 125,000 refugees during the new fiscal year – keeping that number as-is in the face of criticism over his administration’s handling of immigration.
But just because 125,000 refugees will technically be allowed in the country doesn’t mean they’ll actually get here – at least if the last fiscal year was any example.
Under the same overall limit of 125,000 this past fiscal year, which runs from October through September, the U.S. processed just over 25,000 refugees, or one-fifth of the total cap, according to the most recent State Department data.
“Functionally, [the cap] doesn’t make a huge difference because we’ve been admitting such few refugees,” says Shailja Sharma, a professor focused on refugee and forced migration studies at DePaul University.
Experts say the U.S. will not be able to get closer to its refugee cap unless it addresses the many shortcomings of the process – something frequently lobbied for by advocates. But federal officials are aware of the refugee backlog, and have announced plans to rebuild the program, including a big expansion in staffing and an ambitious goal to shorten the average length of the timeline for refugee applicants by about 75%.
The process did appear to speed up at the end of the year: More than 5,500 refugees were admitted in September, while the previous monthly high was just under 2,600. The official refugee admissions number, to be fair, doesn’t take into account those admitted through other means, such as the asylum process and the humanitarian parole programs – which are run through a streamlined process that moves more quickly than the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program but don’t come with a path to citizenship or many benefits. Many displaced people from Afghanistan and Ukraine, for example, have arrived through those programs.
The Biden administration inherited challenges within the refugee program, experts say, after the admissions system was severely stripped down under President Donald Trump. The annual ceiling was decreased to as low as 18,000 during his term, and budgetary constraints at the time forced nearly a third of the country’s resettlement offices to close permanently or suspend operations, according to an article by Daniel Beers, an associate professor in the justice studies department at James Madison University.
Still, while the number of refugees admitted this past fiscal year is more than double the amount from fiscal years 2021 and 2020, the gap between it and the ceiling was the largest it’s been in 20 years, according to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.
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Advocacy groups have both applauded Biden for keeping the cap at 125,000 and urged him to welcome more refugees this year. One way to do that is quite simple, experts say.
“The first thing is staffing, staffing, staffing,” Sharma says. “President Biden has been in power now long enough that he can make this a priority to re-staff.”
And staffing increases must happen at several levels, from leadership to the overseas workers doing “the actual work of refugee vetting, screening and then making all of the steps necessary so that people are ready to travel to the United States,” says Hans Van de Weerd, the senior vice president of resettlement, asylum and integration at the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement organization. A report from the International Refugee Assistance Project, a global legal aid and advocacy organization, notes that more robust staffing would ensure that “the U.S. can conduct an increased number of refugee interviews and adjudicate more cases.”
The State Department insists that the issue of employee shortages is being addressed. A senior department official tells U.S. News on background that a “dramatic expansion” of staffing at overseas resettlement support centers was recently approved for fiscal year 2023, bringing the total number of staffers to 2,000 after there had been about 1,000 at the beginning of 2021.
There will also be new leadership – specifically a White House-appointed special adviser for refugee admissions – tasked with shepherding the rebuild of the program with three major goals, according to the State Department official: expanding capacity to increase arrivals, accelerating processing times and attending to the “long-delayed” applications that constitute the admissions backlog.
“I think at the high-level political administration, that things have moved forward,” says Beers, of James Madison University. “And that’s just going to take some time for them to be able to implement changes that we see down the line. So I’d say that the ball is already rolling there.”
The administration is working on some innovative ways to attempt to streamline the refugee process, the senior State Department official says, including having staff on-site all the time instead of just episodically at select overseas locations and handling different processing steps simultaneously. Additionally, there is talk about using video and other technology to handle the vetting process more efficiently, Beers says – “essentially doing some of this over Zoom,” which he calls a “promising development.”
The overarching aim is to bring down the approximate timeline from referral to U.S. arrival for refugees from about two years to six months. A newly established Refugee Coordination Center staffed by officials from the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Digital Service – which was experimented with under the Barack Obama administration – will drive this effort, according to the senior official.
Humanitarian parole programs, while different from the Refugee Admissions Program, have shown how quickly the government can work. Both have brought more than 83,000 displaced Afghans and tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians into the country in a matter of months, according to the State Department official.
A State Department spokesperson said on background that the department is measuring progress by how quickly they are moving existing cases forward, and that the team has had “success moving cases end to end in as quickly as four weeks” within their Afghan resettlement efforts in Qatar.
This type of progress has “really indicated,” Van de Weerd says, “you can do this a lot faster.”
The State Department official clarifies that the administration is “100%” committed to rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to reach its maximum capacity, and at least two resettlement organization representatives are optimistic that it will.
Eskinder Negash, the president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, says that agencies are “ready to receive” 125,000 refugees this fiscal year. Van de Weerd similarly believes the Biden administration is “creating the conditions to come much closer to the target” for admissions around this time next year and that fiscal year 2023 will be a good test for the system.
“But of course,” Van de Weerd says, “the proof will be in the pudding.”