Washington DC – Keeping a campaign pledge, President Joe Biden officially last week announcement that the United States would allow up to 125,000 refugees into the country during the fiscal year, double the limit from last year.
But it is uncertain whether the United States will be able to meet this new raised ceiling, according to resettlement agencies, amid persistent backlogs, reduced capacity and restrictions on refugee eligibility imposed by the previous one. Trump administration.
âIt will be a real challenge to reach 125,000,â said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs for HIAS, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the United States.
According to the State Department, only 11,411 refugees were resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2021, well below the limit of 62,500 set by the Biden administration in May.
It is also the lowest refugee resettlement figure since the program’s inception in 1980. Under previous administrations, the United States settled an average of 95,000 refugees per year, according to refugee agencies.
The Biden administration has said it is working to rebuild the system, which was severely weakened under former President Donald Trump, who made reducing immigration one of its main goals. Trump has set a resettlement cap of 15,000 refugees for fiscal 2020 – a historic low.
Officials also blamed the coronavirus pandemic, saying it restricted travel, as well as the ability to safely interview resettlement applicants.
“We are working quickly to rebuild processing capacity for the next fiscal year and anticipate a strong resumption of talks using a combination of in-person and video circuits,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera in a statement. E-mail.
“We remain limited by COVID, but we have adjusted and expect the number of arrivals to continue to reflect our increased efforts.”
Experts pointed to additional checks introduced by the Trump administration in 2017, dubbed ‘extreme checks,’ which required applicants to provide additional documents and included checks on social media, which explains the delays in processing applications. .
âThe previous administration, in addition to setting consecutive historic low ceilings, also slowed down the process itself through measures such as ‘extreme scrutiny,’ said JC Hendrickson, senior director of refugee and asylum policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), another resettlement agency.
“What the Biden administration faced when it took office was a depleted pipeline – these were not refugees going through the process at a pace that achieved a higher goal,” said Hendrickson.
According to the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project, the measures have had a severe effect especially on Muslim refugees, whose applications have been blocked for months, if not years, in the security checks portion of the process. . Muslim applicants were also disproportionately subjected to âdiscretionary refusals,â which prevented them from being resettled.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chief executive officer of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another resettlement agency, said more than 100 offices across the entire resettlement network have closed under the Trump administration. The organization is now working with the State Department to reopen them and has rehired staff who were on leave.
“Despite the decimated refugee resettlement infrastructure that the Biden administration inherited, the responsibility now lies with the new administration,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.
The total number of refugees admitted to the United States each year, as well as the number of slots reserved for refugees from five regions of the world, is determined by the President, in consultation with Congress.
Under the 2022 allocation, 40,000 slots would be allocated to people from Africa; 35,000 in the Near East and South Asia; 15,000 to Latin America and the Caribbean; 15,000 to East Asia; 10,000 to Central Asia and 10,000 are earmarked for emergencies.
In its report to Congress, the Biden administration said people from Central America, Afghans with ties to the United States, LGBTQI + refugees, Uyghurs, Myanmar dissidents and Hong Kong activists were priorities for resettlement. The administration is asking $ 1.7 billion for refugee resettlement in 2022, according to the report, up from $ 966 million last year.
But despite the commitment to resettle more refugees this year – the Biden administration’s ceiling is 15,000 more than that set by the Obama administration in 2016 – as well as making an effort to resettle particularly vulnerable groups, critics said the Biden administration has struggled to craft a cohesive immigration policy as a whole.
In April, Biden signed an order that maintained Trump’s 15,000-location limit for refugee resettlement, arguing that this “remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” He raised the limit a month later after a strong backlash from refugee advocates and some Democratic officials.
Last month, as the number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border with Mexico peaked in 20 years, nearly 15,000 Haitians gathered under a bridge in southern Texas in the hope of seek asylum. The United States responded by emptying the camp and deporting more than 7,000 people to Haiti, a nation beset by poverty, gang violence and political instability.
The swift deportations were made possible by Title 42, a Trump-era health ordinance that cited the need to protect the nation from the spread of the coronavirus to effectively block asylum at the border. Despite repeated calls from immigration advocates to reverse the measure, which they say is illegal and puts people at risk, the Biden administration has upheld Title 42 and continued to deport the vast majority of those arriving. at the border.
Asylum seekers arriving at the border and refugees abroad arrive in the United States under separate programs. But observers say the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border differs greatly from the treatment Afghans who fled amid the fall of Kabul to the Taliban received in August – and runs counter to a comprehensive commitment to resettle more refugees in the United States.
âAt the border they are trying to deter people and stop them from seeking asylum, claiming that due to COVID and resource constraints we cannot accept them into our system,â said Theresa Cardinal Brown , executive director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“And yet we admitted 50,000 to 60,000 Afghans who had not been tested for COVID and increased resources to bring them and treat them in the United States,” Cardinal Brown told Al Jazeera. âSo it’s clear that there is capacity in the system somewhere, but they choose to allocate it in some places and not in others. “
Ultimately, Cardinal Brown said the cap of 125,000 refugees is “ambitious,” intended to demonstrate the administration’s commitment to refugees and to increase funding for resettlement.
“A real opportunity”
For his part, HIAS’s Nezer said that the fact that Afghan migrants are already on US military bases awaiting treatment underscores the urgency of putting in place innovative and effective systems and could ‘revive’ the refugee resettlement program.
Many of the 53,000 Afghans who were moved to eight US military bases were airlifted on emergency flights amid the precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They arrived in the United States on âhumanitarian parole,â a discretionary criterion that the United States uses in emergency situations. Another 18,000 are currently on US military bases abroad.
Congress approved $ 6.3 billion in emergency aid in September to help resettle Afghans, who have also been eligible for some of the same benefits as refugees, such as housing assistance and aid looking for a job.
âThis is a real opportunity,â Nezer said, adding that the leaders’ message on what refugee resettlement is and why it is important is also essential.
âWe would like to see President Biden and other members of the administration really articulate the case of refugee resettlement: saving lives, building communities, enriching our own communities with people from around the world who are resilient and hard-working. . “