Biden administration’s missteps on immigration hurt refugees and asylum seekers the most


While the Biden administration is making huge strides in the areas of immigration, its uneven application in different aspects of the U.S. immigration system is sobering.

Currently, 26.3 million refugees hope to be resettled, and future refugee resettlement needs will only increase. (Jenny Warburg)

Just before the 100-day mark, the Biden administration made a terrible blunder by issuing an emergency notice presidential determination on refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021 which maintained Donald Trump’s ceiling of 15,000 people, rather than the 62,500 figure he promised several months ago.

The announcement shocked stakeholders and the general public, and the Biden administration quickly returned their position – sort of – promising a new issue will be released later this year. But the mistake, whether it stems from bad policy or bad communication, exposes a long-standing problem in the execution of our immigration system: It is often far more politically practical to maintain bad policy. than to bring about lasting change.

Biden’s previous pledges to restore refugee resettlement program

Before we get into the larger topic, let’s take a look at what has happened on the refugee resettlement front.

The past four years have seen the destruction of most of the infrastructure necessary to implement a strong refugee admission program. In those infamous first days in power in 2017, President Trump not only banned Muslims from entering the United States, but halted all refugee admissions for a time and reduced the annual Presidential Determination for fiscal 2017 from 110,000 set by President Obama to 50,000.

Year after year, the administration has reduced the number of admissions – apparently in an effort to admit zero refugees – but ultimately, in his final clearance, President Trump set 15,000 and imposed restrictions on refugee admissions in according to religion and nationality.

refugee cap;  Biden administration's missteps on immigration hurt refugees and asylum seekers the most
A protest against Trump’s Muslim ban outside the Supreme Court. (Geoff livingston / Flickr)

In contrast, candidate Biden campaigned with passion and eloquence against the ban on Muslims, the ban on refugees, and the loss of US leadership in humanitarian protection. He pledged to allow 125,000 refugee admissions by FY2022 and to restore the refugee resettlement program.

President Biden began to to succeed on those promises almost immediately, by issuing on the 16th day a detailed executive decree ordering government officials to reconstruct and reimagine the resettlement of refugees. He promised a down payment on the 125,000 admissions, later informing Congress that he would propose to increase refugee admissions from 15,000 to 62,500 for the remainder of the fiscal year and remove discriminatory restrictions that prevented many refugees from countries like Syria and Somalia from entering the United States.

Although the figure of 62,500 was first announced in early February, the promised presidential resolve did not materialize. Each passing day meant that people whose refugee status had already been approved – but whose entry was barred because of their religion or nationality by order of President Trump – still could not fulfill the promise of a new life in the United States.

Refugee resettlement agencies became increasingly concerned, noting that hundreds of flights had been canceled because otherwise eligible refugees would not be allowed into the United States. John Oliver issued a scathing indictment against the delay in the Biden administration on Last week tonight. Members of Congress and other eminent community and advocacy groups pleaded with the administration to act.

The administration was also not transparent about the reasons for the delay. National refugee resettlement agencies, whose relationship with the government is seen as a public-private partnership, were shocked and unworthy by the new command. While delighted that the restrictions have been lifted, they strongly critical the administration’s decision to stick with the Trump number, as countless other organizations have.

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Refugee ceiling decision taken without stakeholders and Congress

So far the justification both the delay and the announcement are based on the fact that the administration inherited a gutted system that was much more faulty than initially assumed. Pressure on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees both unaccompanied child care and resettlement programs in the United States, was also cited as a contributing factor. But something is wrong with these arguments.

It is now accepted that the Trump administration has done everything possible to dismantle humanitarian protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Rebuilding these programs will take a lot of effort, resources and political sense.

The processing of refugees, in particular, has been delayed not only by direct limits on who and how many can enter the country, but also by onerous background checks and other systemic issues, as well as the practical realities imposed by the pandemic. As for the ORR, increasing the number of unaccompanied minors in detention is draining its resources, but resettlement services and the custody of unaccompanied minors are separate agendas within the organization – even with additional pressures, one responsibility does not negate the other.

In light of these concerns, whether 62,500 admissions were practical or realistic has likely been heavily debated within the confines of the National Security Council. But ultimately, the administration chose to notify Congress that it would increase admissions accordingly.

refugee cap;  Biden administration's missteps on immigration hurt refugees and asylum seekers the most
A rally for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in July 2013. (John Englart / Flickr)

Even if there were doubts, acting without consulting stakeholders or Congress was a mistake, and going back to the Trump number was a bigger mistake. The number of refugee admissions is much more than a tally of the number of refugees who will come to the United States in any given year. This is the outer limit for refugee admissions, assessed and calculated against not only US resources, but global needs.

Currently, 26.3 million refugees hope to be resettled. And future refugee resettlement needs will only increase — consider, for example, the great risks to women posed by the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. if the Taliban regain control. Raising the cap sends a signal that the United States recognizes the scale of the need and encourages other countries to do the same, which President Biden acknowledged on Day 16.

Refusing to increase the number now, but instead releasing new targets gradually, will make it more difficult for refugees, resettlement agencies and communities to plan and prepare for refugee arrivals. The journey is already long and unpredictable; backing off from a significant increase in admissions is another destabilizing blow for the refugee network.

DHS continues to deport single adults and families under COVID cover

There is also a troubling parallel between this move and the continued use of another Trump-era legacy: the expulsion asylum seekers under the authority of Title 42 of the United States Code. While the Biden administration has exempted unaccompanied children from deportation, it continues to remove thousands of single adults and families without any due process or opportunity to make an asylum claim under the guise of an order. suspending entry of undocumented people due to COVID-19.

In either case, it seems appropriate to rely on a Trump rule or policy in order to limit the administration’s own liability. It is a risk to set a higher admission number and then not reach it. It is a risk to reject an illegal policy that artificially suppresses the number of people trying to enter the country and seek asylum. Much easier, it seems, to hang on to bad policies that offer some leeway than to run the risk of failure.

But expediency and convenience lead to inconsistent politics. At the same time, the Biden administration has apparently taken a less politically binding path for refugee admissions and Title 42 deportations, making huge strides in other areas of immigration. The administration is tearing up Trump’s playbook, quickly replacing policies and drafting regulations that will improve immigration benefits and change some detention and execution procedures. He is exploring asylum reform and has canceled some of Trump’s worst programs that have hurt asylum seekers. There is real momentum, but its uneven application across different aspects of our immigration system is sobering.

Take action

The fact that the inconsistencies harm refugees and vulnerable asylum seekers should give us pause. And then he should turn to action.


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