President Biden has again set an ambitious goal for welcoming 125,000 refugees into the U.S. this fiscal year, a benchmark that would require processing about 100,000 more people than last year.
The Biden administration has sought to be a foil to his predecessor when it comes to refugees after then-President Trump brought refugee processing down to just a trickle.
But it’s Biden who carries the record for resettling the lowest number of refugees in the history of the program.
“The administration was tackling understandable challenges between the pandemic and multiple crises,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“In terms of setting the [presidential declaration] once again at 125,000, I suppose we could view this as a do-over. Last year we understood why that target was ambitious. This year we hope it’s viewed as a real target to hit, and I think that’s where this year the administration has to rise and take full ownership.”
During his first year in office, Biden resettled just 11,411 refugees, about 400 fewer than the lowest point under Trump, a total complicated by COVID-19 and the extent the program atrophied during the Trump tenure.
As of mid-September of 2022, Biden had resettled just under 23,000 refugees, a figure that could jump by next Wednesday’s reporting deadline as agencies rush to finish processing. The government projects it will welcome as many as 25,000 refugees this year, according to its report to Congress.
While the figure means the Biden administration has doubled refugee processing between its first and second year in office, it still has a long way to go to even get close to its goal.
Though Biden’s 125,000 may seem ambitious, it’s not too big a stretch from historical refugee resettlement numbers, which average around 75,000 and have previously surpassed 100,000.
It also comes at a time when there is significant global displacement due to the evacuation of Afghanistan and people fleeing war-torn Ukraine.
But thus far, the Biden administration has not taken these groups in as refugees, instead allowing them into the U.S. through a process known at humanitarian parole, which allows the government to temporarily waive some immigration requirements.
“I think there’s some rhetoric that is helpful to the administration, when referring to people paroled into the U.S. from Ukraine or Afghanistan as refugees,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project.
There are similarities, he said. Both are fleeing danger and in some cases get some assistance from agencies that help resettle refugees. But parolees are often only allowed into the U.S. for a maximum of two years.
“When [refugees] come to the United States, they have permanent status. In the United States, they don’t have to go back to the country of persecution, or country of asylum. The Afghans and Ukrainians who are being brought to the U.S. are only provided temporary status. There’s no plan for what happens when that status expires. Most Afghans were evacuated and given permission to stay in the US for two years. Ukrainians are in a similar legal immigration posture. So what happens after those two years is unknown. That is completely different from our refugee program,” Varghese said.
The U.S. used humanitarian parole to welcome roughly 80,000 Afghans and has approved 97,000 people through the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian parole program, with another almost 100,000 Ukrainians arriving through other means.
It’s a feature that Vignarajah said favors “speed over stability.”
In the case of Uniting for Ukraine, the idea of the program was to allow Ukrainians to quickly enter the U.S. as many were fleeing the country, noting that many were not seeking official refugee status, as they wished to return home when conditions are safer.
Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a refugee resettlement agency, said the evacuation of Afghanistan was a catalyst for the administration relying heavily on humanitarian parole.
“We didn’t mean for the administration to rely so much on parole at the exclusion of the resettlement program. But the [Uniting for Ukraine] program was a sign that this administration was considering relying more consistently on temporary protection and temporary protection that doesn’t have built-in access to resettlement benefits,” she said.
As the fighting stretches on and Russian President Vladimir Putin moves to annex four Ukrainian regions, it’s becoming less clear when Ukrainians may be able to return — or if they will want to after establishing themselves elsewhere.
Afghans and Ukrainians allowed into the U.S. through parole can seek to remain in the country, but doing so requires applying for asylum, a process that already had a years-long backlog even before the flights from the two counties.
“The administration won’t do post arrival refugee processing — that is the asylum system. So it would be really short-sighted for the administration to suggest that these folks are here writ large temporarily and make that a blanket statement because we’re seeing more and more Ukrainians travel to the U.S., through [Uniting for Ukraine]. We haven’t seen that slow down. And the longer people are here, the more likely they will want to stay,” Owen said.
Many would rather see the U.S. use the resources of its own refugee program to aid them.
“The world’s humanitarian leader can’t play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. We need a system that can respond consistently,” Vignarajah said.
But advocates are optimistic about the U.S. reaching its goal this year, primarily because they believe the Biden administration has done a lot of the hard work of rebuilding the U.S. refugee program after it was decimated by Trump.
The government has increased the number of “circuit rides,” where refugee officers meet and screen refugees for the program. It’s also increased the number of refugee resettlement sites with offices that coordinate a refugee’s arrival.
“We’re hoping that 2023 is the year when we go from simply rebuilding to building the refugee program back better. What we’ve seen in the last two years is reinvesting in refugee resettlement agencies, increasing staffing of [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] refugee corps. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing in 2023 the payoffs from that,” Varghese said.
The White House seems to think so.
“Looking ahead, we expect the innovations and efficiencies gained through this intensive effort will provide new hope and opportunities to all refugees in our program,” it wrote in its report to Congress.
Still, many say the Biden administration will have to get creative in order to meet its goal.
In Qatar, where a number of Afghans stayed following the U.S. evacuation, the administration geared up for 30-day processing — something advocates say shows the government is capable of handling cases in weeks or months rather than the years it currently takes.
And the success of Uniting for Ukraine, which initially rolled out using a private sponsorship model, could be adapted in some ways to be incorporated into the refugee program.
“I think the administration can do it. I think it’s shown just looking at the examples of Ukrainians and Afghanistan, [that it has] the ability to move people through the system quickly and in large numbers if they have the desire and will — and backing to reimagine the process,” Varghese said.