Biden and Immigration: President to Welcome Extra Refugees, however Far From All Will Get In

WASHINGTON – President Biden’s awaiting announcement Thursday that he plans to take more refugees into the United States this year will face a political barrier left by his predecessor: a gutted relocation system that cannot quickly process tens of thousands of desperate people that Mr. Biden would like to let in.

The government’s staffing program, which has been stripped of its staff and weakened by the coronavirus, is simply not equipped to welcome a flood of foreigners fleeing a disaster, officials and experts said.

President Donald J. Trump steadily lowered the annual refugee limit from 110,000, which President Barack Obama said should be allowed into the US in 2016, to just 15,000 for the current fiscal year, a record low. Even that lowest number breaks the cap as the Trump administration added more barriers to the world’s neediest people.

In addition to the numbers, some refugee officers were transferred from posts abroad that had been closed. So some applicants waited for interviews indefinitely. Others were unable to travel during the pandemic as the backlog of persecuted immigrants seeking legal entry into the United States grew.

“Now you have a group that is grounded and cut in numbers because of the virus,” said Jason Marks, a union administrator for refugee and asylum officers in the Washington area. He said some had quit in recent years and refused to be dragged into Mr. Trump’s strict immigration limits on the southwest border.

Although Congress has maintained stable levels of funding for the State Department’s refugee program – more than $ 3 billion a year since 2015 – government efforts to process and relocate people have only raised $ 814 million this year Are available, which reflects the number of people have likely been welcomed to the United States.

By the end of December, according to the US State Department, fewer than 1,000 refugees below the 15,000 limit had been processed and housed in American communities.

Mr Biden is expected to raise the refugee issue during a speech scheduled for Thursday at the State Department. A senior official said Mr Biden is ready to raise the cap to accommodate tens of thousands more people before the end of fiscal year 2021 in September, but it is unclear when the administration will announce the specific number.

Mr Biden pledged during the presidential campaign last year to take in up to 125,000 refugees annually. Two people familiar with the plan said it was unlikely to be announced how many more refugees could enter the country in 2021. Instead, the final total would be prorated over the remaining eight months of the fiscal year to include more people than Mr. Trump had authorized, but the number would ultimately fall below 125,000.

White House, State Department and Department of Homeland Security spokesmen declined to comment.

However, given the dire state of the refugee program, experts predicted that only a fraction of those admitted in 2021 could enter the US by September 30.

Citizenship and Immigration Services were funded for only 235 Refugee Corps officials for the fiscal year ended Oct. 1, compared to 352 in 2017, according to budget documents provided to Congress and received by the New York Times. According to Michael Knowles, president of AFGE Local 1924, who represents refugee officers, there were only 136 refugee officers on the staff as of December 15. The Trump administration has also severely curtailed referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that has historically increased a number of applicants.

In the United States, 105 offices where refugees could seek help when they move to their new homes are closed through April 2019. This corresponds to about a third of these relocation offices. This comes from a report by the Penn Biden Center that was released in October.


Apr. 4, 2021, 1:05 p.m. ET

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said 17 of the organization’s 48 relocation offices had closed due to financial constraints due to cuts in refugee reception.

“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said Ms. Vignarajah.

In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, he also ended an Obama-era program that allows Central American children to seek protection remotely in order to reunite with relatives in the United States. Mr Biden intends to restore a version of the program, administration officials said.

Under a 1980 law, a president can change the refugee limit set for a current fiscal year if there is an unforeseen emergency, a necessary response to a serious humanitarian problem, or if it is otherwise in the national interest.

Barbara L. Strack, a former director of refugee affairs at Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Bush and Obama administrations, told Congress last year that about 40,000 refugees had already been screened by the United States but were pending got stuck.

The situation has only worsened. The number of refugees around the world has steadily increased as war, oppression and humanitarian disasters displace people from their homes. According to estimates by the United Nations, there were 26.3 million refugees worldwide last summer, more than two-thirds of whom came from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

This week, State Secretary Antony J. Blinken also addressed the possibility of taking in refugees who are fleeing political repression in Hong Kong together with Great Britain.

“We see people who are back in Hong Kong and stand up for their own rights. The rights they thought were guaranteed,” Blinken told MSNBC. “If they are the victims of repression by the Chinese authorities, we should do something to offer them refuge.”

Ms. Strack said Mr. Biden will likely cite the global need for refugee resettlement and announce that “the United States will take the lead here”. However, she said there was little chance the United States could take in all of the 125,000 refugees Mr Biden will welcome.

Additional funding and a major system repair are required to increase the 15,000 cap. The pandemic will also challenge the president’s efforts. Even families admitted last year had canceled their flights several times.

“The wild card for now and next year is Covid,” Ms. Strack said, highlighting the possibility that the virus would hamper the operation of resettlement agencies overseas.

But she said she supported Mr Biden’s intentions, saying the effort early in his first year “sends the concrete signal to all operational actors that they need to prepare”.

The annual limit on the number of refugees who can be relocated to the United States usually changes based on what a presidential administration deems necessary to meet the needs of the world. However, Mr Trump saw the refugee program as part of his broader efforts to keep foreigners out of the United States.

Under his administration, the United States relocated even fewer refugees than was supposedly allowed under the annual shrinking limits.

In 2016, the Obama administration’s last full fiscal year, the United States took in 84,994 refugees allowed below its 85,000 ceiling – a 17-year high, according to the State Department.

In 2018, the United States resettled 22,517 refugees below the limit of 45,000. Two years later, in 2020, the limit had dropped to 18,000 refugees, but 11,814 were admitted.

“It takes a long time to screen refugees,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Institute for Migration Policy. “And the resettlement of refugees is not as inviting as it used to be.”

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