Despite his earlier decision to retain Trump-era levels, Biden paves the way for increased refugee arrivals


A refugee holding camp in Kenya, part of Africa’s growing refugee sending size. Photo credit: Council on Foreign Relations

Owen Huang

After facing heightened criticism coming from fellow Democrats and many civil rights advocates, United States President Joe Biden will dramatically raise the nation’s refugee cap for the current fiscal year to 62,500. In doing so, the country is taking a stark jump up from the previous limit of 15,000 refugees annually, which was created by former President Donald Trump. Though this was the maximum number, actual resettlement was often lower. For the first half of the 2021 fiscal year, only 2,000 refugees were admitted to the country, on track to finish nowhere near the potential 15,000.

The Trump-era level was a historic lowering of what had already been limited refugee acceptance rates, as the United States trended away from its role as a leader. During that time, neighboring countries accepted more refugees than ever before, and other regions also boosted admission rates. Much of Biden’s initial policy centers on a goal of restoring the United States’ global standing and to fill more traditional roles.

Biden’s move is a complete about-face from his previous stance. Prior to the first announcement on April 3, he had maintained that the nation would keep the 15,000 number for at least the immediate future. But to make the stance even murkier, in a February 4th public address Biden claimed his administration would be able to raise the cap to 125,000 people during his first year in office.

Then, on April 17, Biden echoed a theme common during his many press conferences in which he said “we couldn’t do two things at once,” referring to addressing the refugee crisis while attempting to meet the needs of those on the southern border.

Despite the strong increase in the potential for refugee resettlement in the United States this year, the administration cautioned that the limit would be hard to reach the first time around by this fall. Biden said in an official release that a shortcoming would be “the sad truth,” In addition to the need for a rapid shift in response policy, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hindered, and at times completely shuttered international travel.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 26 million refugees worldwide, the vast majority of which are unfit to return to their home countries, creating a need for safe places worldwide. Two-fifths are children, and more than two-thirds are from just five countries, with Syria and Venezuela sending the most. However, three-quarters of refugees only settle in neighboring countries, often themselves overcrowded and without adequate resources.

The new, potential 62,500 refugee admissions for the United States are broken down by region the refugees hail from. Sending maximums are 22,000 for Africa; 6,000 for East Asia; 4,000 for Europe and Central Asia combined; 5,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean; 13,000 for the Middle East and South Asia; and 12,500 “reserve” spots to be used as necessary.

With the new goal set to permit heightened refugee travel to the United States,

The initial pushback against Biden’s original verdict on the refugee cap came almost immediately. Individual lawmakers and larger groups alike took offense with the decision viewed as something both necessary and simple to change.

With the recent announcement, the former critics have turned back with the decision, applauding the administration for what Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement “reflects our core values as a welcoming nation, and finally aligns public policy with the unprecedented global need of millions forced from their home by violence, war and persecution.”

For 2022, Biden has announced it is his goal and expectation to return to the original foresight of 125,000 refugees to enter the nation annually. He views this as the ultimate marker for the United States to embrace and improve its service of the global community. Yet the administration’s White House official website states “that goal will still be hard to hit, ” adding “we might not make it the first year.”

The new refugee policy joins a larger theme of an overall vast departure by the Biden administration from previous, especially Trump-era guidelines. Regardless of the administration, a recent trend has seen refugee caps ebb and flow under political policy rather than actual refugee demand. Prior to Trump, President Barack Obama had admitted up to 110,000 annually by the time he left office.

And, strategically, Trump’s low cap not only temporarily reduced admissions, but also served to weaken American resettlement infrastructure making it more ambitious and making goals like Biden’s hard to reach. Coupled with that, the pandemic–and it’s potentially long-lasting specter–is certainly straining logistical and practical operations. International travel is already ill-advised by many health organizations, and refugee-sending countries overwhelmingly do not have the resources to fight the coronavirus.

The official refugees entering the United States under Trump saw the greatest arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with nearly 9,000 per year, followed by Myanmar, Ukraine, and Bhutan. The United States is not currently a leader in accepting refugees from the countries sending the most. These people from the Middle East have generally relocated to neighboring nations and many have fled to Europe. In the case of Venezuela, the vast majority have entered fellow Latin American nations, with two million to Colombia alone.

In the United States, the top refugee-receiving states are Texas, which welcomed shy of 2,000 annually, followed by Washington, Ohio, California, and New York. The UNHCR determines who qualifies as refugees and in many cases their future resettlements. Potential host countries are referred to as viable resettlement options, but this organ does not have complete jurisdiction. What is more, it takes on average almost two years for the entire screening, resettlement vetting, and final relocation process to occur before refugees might be welcomed to a new, safer country.