President Joe Biden is planning to increase the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States next fiscal year to 125,000 beginning in October after years of cuts by the previous administration.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged,” Biden said in a speech Thursday, “but that’s precisely what we’re going to do.”
The plan to dramatically increase the cap comes after former president Donald Trump decimated the country’s refugee program, designed to take in people fleeing dangerous conditions, and forced US-based aid organizations to lay off employees and close offices. The cap for the current fiscal year ending in September, which was set by Trump, is at 15,000, the fewest since the US began the program in 1980. But the White House signaled that Biden would aim to increase that number as well.
Biden’s order, according to a White House statement on Thursday, will also rescind Trump-era policies that required "excessive vetting" of refugee applicants, expand the capacity for the US to assess refugee claims, and improve access for those who are vulnerable across the world, including women, children, and those at risk due to their gender identity or sexual orientation, the statement added.
The Biden administration will look to rebuild that program, though advocates, officials, and experts believe the process will be slow and need to include more funding for organizations that take in refugees as well as reinforcements for workers who process cases.
Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization, agreed that it will take time to rebuild the program, including overseas processing, “but it's vital that we begin that rebuilding process.”
“One hundred twenty-five thousand is a good and reasonable goal for [fiscal year] 2022, a dramatic increase over recent years, but not historically unprecedented,” he added.
Soerens said that the government processing of refugees, which includes extensive interviews and background checks, takes a significant amount of time. World Relief, he added, would not be able to take in a large number of refugees if the cap were increased to 125,000 immediately.
“Because resettlement agencies like World Relief are funded through a mix of private and public funding, and our public funding is tied to a per-refugee grant from the State Department, all of the nine resettlement agencies have had to make significant cuts as resettlement numbers declined by roughly 85% over the past four years,” he said. “World Relief closed eight offices and halted new resettlement in several other locations, while reducing our US-based staff by roughly one-third.”
The United Nations, which reported in December that 80 million people around the world were displaced by mid-2020, also praised the move.
“We applaud the restoration of the US resettlement program,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said. “Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we remind countries of the life-threatening circumstances that refugees face and encourage them to continue to expand their resettlement programs.”
In 2018, the Trump administration capped the number of new refugees at 30,000 before lowering it even further the next year to 18,000 — far fewer than the 110,000 allowed in the final year of the Obama administration.
The cap only acts as a ceiling and does not necessarily mean immigration officials will actually admit the maximum number of refugees. US officers had feared that the program would be scrapped altogether by the Trump administration. One of them said the Biden administration should hire more officers, allow for virtual interviews of refugees abroad, and beef up resources for those intimately involved with the process.
“It’s very encouraging; officers are extremely eager to get started, and we welcome the tone this administration is setting so far,” the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
Even as the refugee program has shrunk, certain groups are feeling the impact more than others. Researchers at the Migration Policy Institute found that Muslim admissions through the program had dropped 87% from 2016 to last year. Trump had called for banning all Muslims from entering the US when he was a candidate for office in 2015.