In September, President Joe Biden once again set an ambitious goal: the United States would resettle up to 125,000 refugees in the next 12 months, part of a commitment to rebuild the program after record low admissions under the Trump administration.
But the Biden administration has struggled to recover from the cuts of the Trump years and dramatically boost the number of refugees they let in, and they will have trouble coming close to this year’s goal. Advocates say it’s time to kick things into a higher gear for 2023.
“Frankly, we've had several years of slow processing or no processing at all in certain areas around the world. So there are extremely long backlogs,” said Lacy Broemel, policy analyst at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Former president Donald Trump set the cap at a record-low 15,000 in his final year. Biden later raised it to 125,000 for his first full year in office — a ceiling not met since the 1990s.
But barely 25,400 refugees were admitted in fiscal year 2022, which ended in September.
And last month, just over 2,000 refugees were admitted — a number that would need to increase significantly in order for the U.S. to resettle anywhere close to 125,000 in fiscal year 2023.
Advocates say a more realistic annual number is a little more than half of that.
“I'm actually confident that it's going to grow so that by the end of the year, we'll have closer to 10,000 coming a month,” said Yael Schacher, director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International.
“It's going to take a little while to get there. So I'm more confident that we'll see maybe 70,000 people resettled.”
State Department officials say they’re still at a disadvantage because of how the Trump administration deprived and depleted the program.
“We lost a lot of personnel by the previous administration,” said Derek Chollet, State Department counselor. “We have been making sure that we have the adequate staff here at the State Department and around the world.”
The State Department says that besides hiring more staff, it has also created a Refugee Coordination Center with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Digital Service to boost processing efficiency.
Right now, refugees regularly wait years for admission. A State Department spokesperson told Spectrum News it can take “12-18 months or longer” after an applicant has been assigned to a resettlement support center, which itself can take years.
In one of his first executive orders, President Biden had called for a timeline of six months, which is still the administration’s goal.
“Getting people through refugee resettlement faster is the big issue,” Schacher said. “If it was a six month process, people would do it. If it's like three years, five years – I mean, that's just too long for people to wait.”
The refugee program is the primary pathway displaced people around the world can seek entry to the U.S.
But the Biden administration has recently turned to humanitarian parole for emergency needs – the authority used to admit tens of thousands of Afghans and Ukrainians last year.
Officials say those admissions “required a significant reallocation of time and resources.”
But advocates assert that it’s past time to surge resources to the broader refugee program and make critical updates: hire more refugee officers, use video conferencing to do interviews overseas, or build an online system for refugees to track their cases.
“A lot of people don't realize that most refugees, they have no idea where their case is in the pipeline,” Broemel said.
And Broemel also highlighted the need for intense coordination from the very top, praising the new White House special adviser on refugee admissions, Andrew Nacin, who with a technology and immigration background is charged with revamping and boosting efficiency of refugee admissions.
Nacin helped architect expedited processing for Afghans last year, cutting it down to just 30 days, a White House official said.
Asked whether the U.S. would get close to the 125,000 admissions cap set this year, Chollet at the State Department said: “I mean, that's our cap.”
“That's as many as we've agreed to take. And so we're working hard to get as many as we can within that cap.”