More refugees were resettled in the United States last month than at any other point in the current fiscal year, a sign President Joe Biden and his administration are rebuilding a program that was decimated by the previous administration.
In June, according to new data from the US State Department, 1,530 refugees were provided new homes within the country, more than the previous three months combined. It is also the highest number since September 2020, and the second-highest total since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
That comes after refugee admissions tripled in May, to 915, after resettlements had nearly ground to a halt. Just one refugee was resettled in October 2020, the start of the current fiscal year – and until Biden issued a new order in April this year, none were allowed to come from Syria and other countries subject to the last White House’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority nations.
The Biden administration has a stated goal of resettling as many as 62,500 refugees by the end of September. It is, however, extremely unlikely to reach that: just 4,780 people have been resettled thus far.
But officials at refugee resettlement agencies have told Insider the White House is indeed working behind the scenes to rebuild the capacity to provide new homes, in the next fiscal year, to as many as 125,000 people fleeing war and repression.
In a break with past administrations, the US government is now providing funds up front to resettlement agencies so they can rebuild their capacity. Many of those agencies closed offices during the Trump administration, which had consistently slashed the number of people who could be admitted to the US.
The last White House had set a cap of just 15,000 resettlements, an historic low. By contrast, more than 200,000 refugees were admitted in 1980, when the modern resettlement program began.
The bottleneck, according to experts, is the application process for resettlement candidates. Not only do such candidates need to first be identified by US officials, but they need to submit to multiple interviews and background checks abroad, a process that takes several months, at a minimum.
Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization and advocacy at the resettlement agency World Relief, told Insider the 1,530 refugees admitted last month “is still far, far below the historic norms.” But, he said, “it does represent a significant increase over the past several months, and we celebrate this progress.”
“The Biden administration will need to continue to prioritize re-building the pipeline for refugee resettlement that starts with overseas processing,” he added.
Afghan activists and former US national security officials are asking President Joe Biden to make a concerted effort to help thousands of vulnerable people, including those who worked with the American military, flee Afghanistan ahead of a planned US withdrawal this September.
The fear is that the US-backed Afghan government could collapse following the removal of US ground troops – and that, even short of this, Taliban forces will be in a position to execute those it deems traitors to the nation.
“The situation in Afghanistan is truly saddening and many Afghans in the diaspora, like myself, are losing sleep thinking about the future of the country,” Adeena Niazi, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services, told Insider.
The International Refugee Assistance Project has asked President Biden to consider mass airlifts of vulnerable Afghans, akin to what US forces did during the fall of Saigon. With time limited – security vetting can take six months to more than a year – the group said the US should consider relocating Afghan refugees to a US military base, such as the one in Guam, and conduct background checks there.
In a letter sent Wednesday, a group of former US national security officials urged the Biden administration to come up with a plan for evacuating 18,000 Afghans who have worked with the US and are still waiting for the Special Immigrant Visa applications to be processed. It echoed the call for relocating this population while it waits.
“Those applicants and their families live in constant danger and fear, which will only intensify as American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, and they are left fully exposed to violent retaliation,” the group wrote. “In the worst case, they will be killed.”
According to a report from CNN on Wednesday, the US Department of Defense is indeed looking at how it can evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked for it over the last two decades. Officials, however, told the outlet that there has been no formal request for such a contingency plan from the White House.
But as it withdraws, the US should consider more than just its direct allies, Niazi argued. More than 35 million people live in Afghanistan – and many, particularly women, face the prospect of repression, at best, should militants pushing an austere form of Islam take power, as they did in the 1990s following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal and the collapse of another US-backed state.
“The US government along with its international allies should make every effort to not forget about other civilians and vulnerable Afghans who will be reliving the wars of the past,” she said.
Within Afghanistan itself, more than 4 million people have already been internally displaced, that number “increasing daily due to ongoing conflict,” according to Samira Hamidi, deputy regional director for South Asia at Amnesty International. That conflict continued through 2020 despite peace talks between the US and the Taliban, according to data from the United Nations: while overall civilian casualties fell 15%, including more than 3,000 dead, there was a 45% increase in targeted killings.
Nillab Pazhwak, co-founder of the Afghan-American Women’s Association, is herself a refugee, leaving Afghanistan as a student before ultimately resettling in Virginia. It “scares us,” she said in an interview, of the prospect of history repeating. “Immediately, when we talk of September, we feel like, ‘What if the same thing will happen, and the central government is not able to hold control and the Taliban will return?'”
Pazhwak supports the calls to evacuate as many vulnerable Afghans as would like to leave too. But her fear is that helping some leave will be seen as absolving US officials for their part in what happens to the many left behind. And who, really, is not vulnerable?
“Should we take the cream of the society out now? What will happen to the rest of the people?” she asked. “There’s 35 million of us. We should not forget about all of them.”
The United States resettled only 271 refugees in April, according to new data from an organization within the US State Department, putting the country on track to accept fewer than 5,000 displaced persons before the current fiscal year ends in September – an historic low.
Just under 12,000 refugees were resettled in the last full fiscal year of the previous administration, down from an average of about 80,000.
From last October through April 30 the US had resettled 2,334 refugees, according to the data released Thursday.
President Joe Biden campaigned on revitalizing the refugee admissions program, promising to reverse the cuts made by his predecessor who campaigned against accepting people fleeing war and repression – and launched racist attacks against those already here. In Biden’s first full fiscal year, which starts October 2021, the president has committed to resettling as many as 125,000 refugees.
But the number of people resettled has declined each month that Biden has been in office. And the administration recently waffled on just how many refugees it planned to accept this year.
After first saying it would find new homes for 62,500 people this fiscal year, in an April notice to Congress the White House elected not to touch the cap of 15,000 set by the last occupant of the White House; its new position was that it would only consider raising that number should the limit be reached.
After a backlash, President Biden announced on May 3 that he would be committing to his previous goal. Still, he added, “The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,5000 admissions this year,” saying his administration needs time “to undo the damage of the last four years.”
He’s not wrong. By all accounts, the resettlement program – which relies on the assistance of nine nongovernmental organizations to place refugees in their new communities, setting them up with homes and careers – was nearly obliterated.
“It was really challenging,” Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian charitable organization, said of the previous four years. Her group closed a third of its offices, including ones that “had been in certain communities for over 20 years,” letting go dozens of staffers. It will need time to rebuild.
But Yang, like many others who work with refugees, was disappointed when the Biden administration appeared to let the politics of immigration – Republicans capitalizing on the increase in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum – overwrite its previously stated committement to letting in refugees that the last White House kept out. It was not just confused messaging, she said of the back and forth, but a mark of indecision.
“It started to become a little bit overwhelmed at what was happening at the border, and it led to them backtracking on their promise,” she said.
World Relief is under “no illusion” that it and other aid groups will resettle some 60,000 refugees before October. But without an aspirational goal, you are not only guaranteed not to exceed expectations, but signal that refugees are not a priority, both to the world and to the bureaucracy that needs to be kicked into gear.
Last month’s resettlement figures, perhaps, reflect the confusion at the White House. With a clear goal, it is possible there will now be an acceleration.
“I think now we’re in a good place,” Yang said, “and we’re hopeful that we can really build back the program better than it was before.”
President Joe Biden is formally pledging to accept as many as 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, even as he cautioned Monday that it will not be possible to meet that goal given the state of the resettlement program he inherited.
“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden said in a statement.
Soon after taking office, Biden pledged to reverse years of cuts and accept as many as 125,000 refugees in the next fiscal year, a level that has not been reached since 1992. And his administration said in February that it would committ to accept about half that number before the current fiscal year runs out.
But in a memorandum submitted to Congress last month, the administration caused an uproar among Democratic lawmakers and religious leaders alike, leaving the door open to keeping its predecessor’s cap for the time being. In the document, the administration said only that it would revisit the issue should 15,000 admissions “be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year” in September.
“We are very encouraged to know that President Biden followed through on his commitment to raise the refugee ceiling to 62,500,” Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian charity that takes part in the US government’s resettlement program, told Insider. “Many communities in the United States are ready to welcome refugees, and this first step will help save the lives of thousands of refugees around the world.”
Raising the cap does not mean 62,500 people will be resettled by then; it is a ceiling, not a floor, and Biden himself said that the “sad truth” is it will likely not be met. Even next year’s goal will be a struggle.
“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years,” he said. “It will take some time, but that work is already well underway.”
In fiscal year 2020, the US resettled just 11,814 refugees, despite the cap being set at 18,000, according to the US State Department. For context, in 1980 more than 200,000 people fleeing war and repression were resettled.
US officials have cautioned that it will take time to rebuild a program that relies on non-governmental organizations, such as the Catholic Church, to place new arrivals – organizations that saw their capacities wither during the previous four years.
As of March 31, just 2,050 refugees had been resettled in the current fiscal year.
But advocates had urged the Biden administration to raise the refugee cap regardless of its attainability, maintaining that an aggressive goal would create the urgency needed to rebuild capacity while sending a message that refugees were indeed welcome.
“This is an important step towards ensuring that the refugee program is rebuilt in a manner that reflects our country’s values as a beacon of freedom and safety for the persecuted,” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement.
Before the US government leaves Afghanistan, it needs to find a way to protect the many people who will be left behind, even if that requires the same mass-scale airlifts that accompanied the fall of Saigon.
That’s according to the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a human rights group that lobbies for the displaced. In recommendations outlined Monday, it called on the Biden administration to resettle many more refugees from Afghanistan, including those who worked with the US government as well as journalists, activists, and others who risk being targeted by the Taliban.
“Time is running out for the US government to offer humanitarian protection to Afghans whose lives will be under threat after US withdrawal,” Adam Bates, the group’s policy counsel, said in a statement.
President Joe Biden announced earlier this month he plans to remove the last US troops in Afghanistan by September 11, marking two decades of war and occupation. He has pledged, however, to continue supporting the Afghan government, as well as conduct counter-terrorism missions as need be.
Afghans already compose one of the world’s largest group of refugees, with 2.7 million having fled their country by mid-2020, according to the United Nations. The fear is, after the US pulls out, the number seeking a better life abroad will skyrocket.
Already there is a backlog of more than 17,000 Afghans seeking special immigrant visas, which are awarded to those who worked with the US government. A total of 26,500 such visas have been allocated since 2014, per the US State Department. IRAP is urging the Biden administration to “surge” resources to the program to fastrack resettlement.
But many more will be seeking protection. The White House has committed to raising the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 by next fiscal year — but that does not kick until October. In the meantime, the US should to “parole” Afghan candidates, exempting them from this year’s as yet undetermined cap and allow them to apply for more permanent status from the safety of the US. It should facilitate their transport, IRAP said, with “large-scale airlifts,” including to US military bases that could act as immigrant processing centers.
In 1975, after it had already withdrawn its own soldiers, the US military evacuated thousands of civilians by helicopter from Saigon after North Vietnamese forces overran the city, now named after Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
“The United States must act now to protect vulnerable Afghans or risk a humanitarian catastrophe in the region,” Bates said. “President Biden should use all his power to protect these Afghan civilians.”
President Joe Biden may attend mass every Sunday, but when it comes to welcoming more refugees he has thus far been a disappointment to the Catholic Church.
Biden campaigned on establishing a more humane immigration system, promising, in particular, to restore a refugee resettlement program that had been systematically gutted by his predecessor. Soon after taking office, the first Catholic in the White House in more than 50 years announced plans to resettle as many as 125,000 refugees in fiscal year 2021, which begins October 1.
But last week the Biden administration disappointed immigrants and their allies when it informed Congress it was not committed to raising the ultra-low cap on refugee admissions set by the last White House. Left unchanged, just 15,000 people, at most, would be resettled by the end of the current fiscal year. For comparison, the US admitted over 200,000 refugees in 1980.
Bishop Mario Dorsonville, head of the US Conference on Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said Monday the country can do a lot more to help the world’s most vulnerable
“The number of refugees who will be welcomed this year is far short of what we can do as a country and is not an adequate response to the immense resettlement need,” Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop in Washington, DC, and himself an immigrant from Colombia, said in a statement.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services is one of nine nonprofit organizations that partner with the US government to meet the needs of refugees who arrive in the country. Those seeking protection from war and repression deserve compassion and assistance, it teaches, citing the “mercy of Christ, who himself was a immigrant and child of refugees.”
‘Shocked and disappointed’
Faith leaders were aghast, then, at hearing the new administration suggest it might embrace continuity on refugees, at least for now, with Protestants joining Catholics in denouncing the status quo.
Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, an Evangelic Christian group that helps resettle refugees, said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the news. By “embracing President Trump’s historically low refugee ceiling,” he said in a statement, “President Biden is betraying his commitment to build back better.”
The White House heard the uproar. Hours after appearing content to stay put, the Biden administration put out a statement reiterating that it does not plan to stick with the last administration’s refugee policy forever; it will announce a new admissions cap for the rest of this year in the coming weeks, it said. But because the resettlement program was decimated by the last administration, spokesperson Jen Psaki lowered expectations for how many will be admitted this year, walking back an earlier goal of more than 62,000.
The Catholic Church, however, is urging the administration to go big.
“We expect the administration to recalibrate and raise this ceiling,” Bishop Dorsonville said, pointing to the “unprecedented number of refugee families seeking new homes after being persecuted for religious, political, and other reasons.” The church, he added, is in fact “disappointed that it has not done so yet.”
It is not the only area of immigration policy where Biden has disappointed some Catholics. Asylum-seekers, too, have generally experienced more of the same during the first few months of this presidency. Biden has allowed unaccompanied minors to enter the US, in contrast to a predecessor who kept them on the other side of the border.
But he has otherwise maintained his predecessor’s closed-door policy, asylees included, citing a lack of infrastructure to process new arrivals, as well as the public health risk posed by increased admissions during a pandemic.
“There is an expectation that Biden would have more humanitarian policies at the border,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic group that assists migrants, recently told the Jesuit magazine America. “In practice, however, that has not happened.”
The White House capped a confusing day of inconsistent messaging on refugees by saying President Joe Biden will set a new, higher goal for admissions by this time next month.
Earlier, the news was bleak for victims of war and repression seeking to start a new life in the United States: 15,000 cap on refugees. In an emergency directive sent to Congress on Friday, the president said that was the maximum number of refugees – the lowest in four decades – that he would commit to resettling in the current fiscal year, which ends September 30.
“Should 15,000 admissions… be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year and the emergency refugee situation persists, a subsequent Presidential Determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate,” the document said.
That was a significant departure from the 62,500 that Biden announced he would resettle soon after taking office, with reports that the White House feared the “political optics” of refugee resettlement amid the surge in asylum-seekers at the southern border.
Sunil Varghese, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement that it was “disappointing and highly unusual to see the administration backtrack on its proposal to increase refugee admissions overall.” The group said the White House should fill the 15,000 slots immediately and then raise the admissions cap up to what it initially promised – a door left open by the directive itself.
Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also livid. The White House, he said, by failing to raise the cap had “not only stymied the number of refugees permitted entrance into the United States, but also it has prevented the Department of State from admitting vetted refugees currently waiting in the system.”
A new low on refugees
The Biden administration is currently on track to admit the fewest number of refugees in modern history, with only 2,050 admitted halfway through the 2021 fiscal year, according to an analysis by the International Rescue Committee. That, advocates concede, is a product of the last administration, which left the refugee resettlement program “decimated” as part of an agenda to drastically limit the legal avenues for immigrating to the US.
But a cap on refugee admissions is not a floor, which left many Democrats and their voters confused as to why, logistical challenges or not, the White House was tying itself to the same low number set by the administration it replaced.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did not help clarify the matter. “America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program,” he said in a post on Twitter. “We will use all 15,000 slots under the new Determination and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back to the numbers to which we’ve committed.”
But what commitment? The administration has said it would like to admit as many as 125,000 refugees in the next fiscal year. It was left ambiguous whether Sullivan was referring to that or Biden’s commitment for here and now.
The confusion, clarified
To muddy things further, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters Friday afternoon, said Biden “remains committed to raising the cap.” And she said, specifically, that the number by October would be 62,500.
But Psaki, too, would backtrack. In a statement issued later Friday evening, she conceded that Biden’s position on refugee admissions had been “the subject of some confusion.” She then outlined the latest stance. “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.”
Again, though: a cap is a cap, not a floor, and there is no legal requirement for an administration to meet it if logistics do not allow for it.
Psaki portrayed Biden’s Friday directive as merely a stopgap measure that would allow for the resettlement of refugees who had been prohibited from entry by the last president, such as those from Iraq. Left unanswered, however, is just how many refugees this administration will try to accept this year. On that question, confusion lingers – but we should have a definitive answer, Psaki said, “by May 15.”
President Joe Biden promised that his foreign policy would mark a major departure from former President Donald Trump, pledging to put human rights and democracy at the center of his approach to global affairs. But on issues ranging from US relations with Gulf states to refugees, Biden is continuing many of Trump’s most divisive and controversial policies and practices – and both progressives in Congress and advocacy groups are not happy.
Trump repeatedly demonized refugees, painting them as a threat to the US, and his administration set the lowest ever cap on refugee admissions for the 2021 fiscal year. On the campaign trail and in the early weeks of his presidency, Biden vowed to reverse that trend and lambasted Trump over his xenophobic refugee policy.
“We used to allow refugees – 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in February. “It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000. Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were – and, you know, that’s – you know, ‘send me your huddled masses.’ Come on.”
But the president is now walking back on a promise to open America’s doors to 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, and is keeping Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 in place, per a directive the president issued on Friday.
Biden is also moving to speed up admissions and change the regional allocation of refugees, ending a Trump policy that effectively disqualified most refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries.
The president’s decision-making on this has seemingly been influenced by Republican criticism over his administration’s handling of a historic number of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border in recent months. GOP leaders have referred to the surge as a “crisis,” blaming it on by Biden’s more welcoming immigration messaging.
Human rights groups, refugee advocates, and some congressional Democrats ripped into Biden’s decision to retain Trump’s refugee cap.
“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state said Biden has “broken his promise to restore our humanity.”
“This is incredibly disappointing. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tweeted on Friday.
Joanne Lin, the National Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International, in a statement said Biden is “turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world who have been approved to come to the United States.”
“Biden had the opportunity to fulfill his campaign pledge and to deliver on his promises to protect the rights of and well-being of refugees, to place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, and to restore U.S. global leadership. He squandered that opportunity today,” Lin added.
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Biden has already reversed or moved to roll-back many of Trump’s biggest foreign policy changes. But as evidenced by the decision on refugees, Biden is not pulling a complete 180 when it comes to international relations – and he’s facing growing accusations of talking big on human rights without fully backing it up.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden did not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi’s killing, even after the release of a declassified intelligence report directly implicating the Saudi leader in the brutal murder.
“It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone, ‘But we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’,” Agnes Callamard, the new chief of Amnesty International who spearheaded a UN inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, said of Biden.
In February, Biden announced he’s moving to end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Critics say this arms deal doesn’t exactly jive with that move and Biden’s broader promise to prioritize human rights.
Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Biden’s advancement of Trump’s arm deal with the UAE means his administration “has backed out of its pledge” on Yemen and warned the US now risks complicity in future human rights violations.
“Trying to understand how a massive arms sale to a repressive authoritarian government that bankrolled regional anti-democratic counterrevolutions, backs a Libyan warlord, and helped rubble Yemen (a partial list) strengthens a rules-based international order,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, said in a tweet.
Duss has praised Biden on other foreign policy moves, such as the president’s decision to tap Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. But his criticism of Biden on the UAE sale is emblematic of evolving discontentment among progressives and human rights groups when it comes to the president’s foreign policy.
Declaring his intent to restore the United States’ “moral leadership,” President Joe Biden announced that he is raising the cap on the number of refugees the country to as many as 125,000 for the fiscal year that begins this fall.
According to the White House, Biden also intends to work with Congress on overriding the cap for this fiscal year, set at just 15,000 by his predecessor.
But actually hitting a higher target right away would be difficult, even without a pandemic. During the Trump years, more than a third of US resettlement offices were shuttered, with their accompanying staff let go, the Associated Press reported – capacity that will need to be restored before admissions can be ramped up.
The president acknowledged that in a speech at the US State Department on Thursday. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said. Accordingly, “I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”
While a major increase – and the highest cap since 1993 – the new ceiling of 125,000 refugees is still far below the number the US accepted years ago. In 1980, the US resettled more than 207,000 people fleeing violence, poverty, and oppression; in fiscal year 2020, that number fell to less than 12,000.
In President Barack Obama’s final year in office, the US accepted just under 85,000 refugees.
Building capacity to resettle refugees is not needed solely within the government itself. There are nine national agencies that work with the State Department to find homes for the displaced; they too have faced staff cuts in the wake of a diminishing need for their services.
“Rebuilding our nation’s significantly-dismantled refugee resettlement system will take a great deal of effort and advocacy,” Tim Breene, CEO of the Christian humanitarian group World Relief, said in a statement. He urged the Biden administration not to wait before accepting more refugees, calling on the president to lift the current year’s cap on admissions and scrap “other policies restricting access to asylum.”