Recent statistics show that the U.S. refugee programme has not been able to address displacement crises and U.S. admissions to refugees have fallen to an all-time low.
The U.S. didn't use its refugee program to resettle more Afghans who fled Afghanistan last year. It also won't accept some of the millions fleeing Russian invading Ukraine through the program.
Trump-era restrictions combined with the COVID-19 pandemic saw U.S. refugee admissions fall to record levels in 2020 and 2021. Although President Biden had set a goal to receive up to 125,000 refugees by fiscal year 2022 , less than 9,000 refugees were relocated in the first six months.
More than 20,000 Ukrainians who were forced from their homes by war are now attempting to enter the United States via Mexico.
Danilo Zak, policy analyst at National Immigration Forum said that "that's such an indictment against our refugee system that that's that's the fastest way to get there," calling the U.S. resettlement process "sluggish."
What is the refugee process and how has the Biden administration failed to increase the number of admissions? Here are the facts.
Who is considered a refugee by the U.S. laws?
The Refugee Law of 1980 was the foundational law of the U.S. refugee program. It was based largely on international treaties that were forged after World War II, and the Holocaust. These treaties were intended to stop governments from sending people to places where they could be hurt.
This law defines a refugee to be someone who has been persecuted or is in imminent danger of persecution in their home country due to their race, nationality or religious affiliation.
Asylum is only for those who are already in the United States, but refugee status is available to individuals who have fled their homelands, and settled in third-country locations such as refugee camps.
What is the U.S. refugee system?
Most refugees require a referral from the United Nations or an American embassy to be allowed into the U.S. refugee program. Referrals are not required for refugees who have already been in the United States or those who qualify under special programs. They can apply directly for resettlement without any referrals.
Potential refugees must provide biographical information, biometrics, and documents to U.S. funded Resettlement Support Centers. These centers check names against U.S. watchlists. These centers are also used to interview potential refugees and prepare them for Department of Homeland Security (DHS), refugee officers.
The U.S. refugee officer then interviews potential refugees in order to determine if they meet the refugee criteria. This is usually done in person in third-country. If they find the applicant's testimony credible and in line with the conditions in their home countries, they can conditionally accept cases for resettlement.
Before refugees arrive in the United States, the government performs security screenings. This is done using databases from the FBI and other federal agencies.
Last, a medical screening is required to make sure refugees are not spreading a communicable disease to the U.S.
On average, the entire process of becoming a refugee takes 18-24 months to complete.
What happens to refugees after they arrive in the U.S.
Refugees are matched with a group of resettlement workers before they can reach the United States. Nine non-profit resettlement organizations and many of their affiliates assist refugees in integrating into American society. They help them find affordable housing and jobs, apply to benefits, enroll their children in school, and secure basic necessities.
The resettlement groups usually provide rent assistance for refugees in the first few months of their arrival. Temporarily, they are eligible for government programs such as cash assistance and food stamps.
Refugees are eligible to apply for permanent residency after they have lived in the United States for one year. They can apply to be naturalized citizens after five years of living in the U.S.
What number of refugees do the United States receive each year?
Every fiscal year since 1980, the United States has established a refugee "ceiling". This ceiling determines the maximum number refugees that can be resettled. It does not require the U.S. receive a specific number. Republican and Democratic presidents have sought to resettle thousands of refugees every year for decades.
Under the presidency of Jimmy Carter (a Democrat), the U.S. received 270,000 refugees in fiscal 1980. This is still a record in the modern refugee system. Although refugee admissions declined significantly under Ronald Reagan (a Republican), his administration still received over 60,000 refugees each fiscal year.
George H. W. Bush's Republican administration dramatically increased refugee admissions. In 1992 alone, 132,000 refugees were resettled. The number of refugees admitted to the United States by Democratic President Bill Clinton decreased, but it remained above 70,000 each year. This trend was reversed during his second term.
The George W. Bush administration ended the refugee program after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Refugee admissions plummeted to 27,000 in fiscal 2002, a new record. In 2003, admissions remained at a historic low level. However, they increased during the Bush presidency.
Barack Obama's administration provided 80,000 refugee places annually in its first four years. In 2009, admissions rose to 74 500. They then dropped below 60,000 in 2011/12. During Obama's second term, refugee admissions increased to 85,000 during his final fiscal year.
What did Trump do to restrict refugee admissions
Donald Trump, a Republican, entered office to challenge the bipartisan consensus regarding refugee resettlement. He portrays refugees as a threat to U.S. security, economic and cultural stability.
Trump stopped refugee admissions in his first week of office, citing national security issues. Trump then reduced by half the 100,000 refugee limit Obama had set for fiscal 2017. His administration established consecutively low refugee cap levels for the next years. It allocated just 15,000 spots in fiscal year 2021.
Trump's administration added layers of security screenings for the refugee program. It also proposed an order that allowed states and jurisdictions to veto resettlement of refugees within their communities. The Trump administration severely reduced the number of refugees who are eligible for U.S. protection.
Trump's restrictions and record-low ceilings caused U.S. refugee organizations to close their offices and lay off staff, thereby destroying the national resettlement infrastructure. The U.S. received 11,841 refugees in Trump's last fiscal year. This was a record low.
What was the impact of the pandemic on the refugee program
Trump's administration stopped refugee admissions in 2020 for several months, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews with refugees in person, which had fallen during Trump's administration, were also halted in March 2020 because of the pandemic. They resumed only in the summer 2021.
The U.S. had interviewed between 65,000 to 75,000 refugees annually before the pandemic. Most of these interviews were done during "circuit rides," which sent refugee officers to camps overseas. According to DHS data, U.S. refugee officials completed 44,000 interviews and made 97 circuit rides in fiscal 2019.
U.S. refugee officers conducted 7 circuit rides and 1200 refugee interviews in fiscal 2020, which was a new record. Circuit rides and refugee interviews rebounded to 12, and 9,100, respectively, in fiscal year 2021. DHS data shows that refugee officers have conducted 13,600 interviews so far and that 23 circuit rides have been completed in fiscal year 2022.
Biden plans to increase refugee admissions
Mr. Biden removed Trump's refugee categories early in his presidency. however, kept the low 15,000 refugee limit for the fiscal year. This was due to the broken resettlement system. After intense opposition from progressives, Mr. Biden raised the cap to 62,500 spots. Of which only 11,411 were used. This was an all-time low.
Although refugee admissions have increased in recent months, they still fall well below the 125,000 refugee limit for fiscal 2022. The years-long refugee process has led to the Biden administration turning to another legal authority in order to swiftly resettle certain refugee populations.
The administration plans to use "humanitarian parole", authority to admit displaced Ukrainians who are identified by U.S. citizens and groups that will sponsor them. Parole is not a route to legal permanent status in the U.S., although it is faster than the refugee process.
Although the administration claims that many Ukrainians are seeking temporary safety haven, parolees could face the same legal dilemma as the thousands of Afghan evacuees who arrived in the U.S. last year under this authority.
However, the private sponsorship program for displaced Ukrainians could be used by the administration to create a wider program that will allow U.S. organizations and individuals to sponsor refugees from other countries.