Emerging from COVID, the US Refugee Resettlement Program Enters a Critical Phase


Asylum-seekers queued for a meal at El Barretal shelter in Tijuana, Mexico in December 2018. © UNHCR/Daniel Dreifuss

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically slowed the pace of resettlement globally, with global refugee resettlement numbers falling by over 50 percent from 2019-2021. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 1.5 million refugees are currently in need of resettlement.

These low resettlement numbers were compounded in the United States by policies set forth by the Trump administration, which sought to resettle refugees in the United States at all-time lows. From the end of the Obama administration to the end of the Trump administration, refugee admissions fell from 97,000 admitted in FY 2017 to 11,411 in FY 2021.

According to a report by Refugee Council USA, as of June 30, 2022, the Biden administration has only resettled about 15,000 refugees—significantly lower than the administration’s FY 2022 refugee ceiling of 125,000. However, this total does not include the 75,000 Afghans brought into the country from August-September 2021 under Operation Allies Welcome, or the 100,000 Ukrainians recently allowed to enter, only a small minority of whom entered through the refugee program.

In fact, the administration can make the case that the refugee ceiling was exceeded with overall admission numbers, albeit with only a small percentage entering through the US Refugee Resettlement Program. In the years ahead, however, the refugee program is the preferable pathway for measuring the commitment of the United States to refugee resettlement.

Given the high aspirations compared to the low numbers resettled through the refugee program, a return to the number of refugees resettled in the United States before the pandemic may be slow and painstaking. There are steps, however, that the administration and Congress can take to rebuild the program to historic levels and return the United States to be an international leader in refugee protection and resettlement.

Reduce processing times

The United States has one of the longest processing times globally, averaging 24 months from identification to arrival. One of the innovations of the pandemic has been the adoption by some European countries, out of necessity, of remote processing of refugees. This has included video interviews, which until now has been mostly avoided by some nations, including the United States.

As a result of the increase in the use of such interviews by some countries, processing times have been reduced. The United States should consider employing virtual processing in particular situations, especially for those refugees who are located in remote places. This method must ensure, however, that procedural safeguards are in place so that due process is ensured at all times.

Moreover, the United States should re-examine the lengthy security process, which is the main culprit for long processing times. Currently, as many as 12 security checks are run by various government agencies before an application is approved.

An office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) dedicated to facilitating this process, could speed up security approvals. Advocates have also suggested the creation of a refugee coordinator position in the White House to oversee the admissions process, which would include improving upon the efficiency of the background check process. Finally, more funding should be provided to expedite refugee processing without jeopardizing national security.

Increase funding to rebuild the refugee program infrastructure

During the Trump administration, the budget for PRM dropped significantly, in part to reflect the low number of refugees set in the presidential determination each year. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a moratorium on resettlement for five months in 2020, further compounded the issue.

As a result, the nationwide infrastructure for resettling refugees has been weakened, as resettlement agencies have been forced to reduce staff and services. While the Biden administration has proposed larger budgets for PRM and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), their efforts have been insufficient to rapidly restore the lost infrastructure from past years. The crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan have also required unexpected expenditures by the government and placed additional burdens on refugee resettlement agencies.

According to a CMS report, resettlement agencies would require higher staffing levels in employment services (66 percent), general integration and adjustment services (62 percent), mental health care (44 percent), and medical case management (44 percent) to resettle refugees at pre-2017 levels. The report also found that refugees identified medical care, housing, and employment as the most helpful services in their first few months in the country.

The Biden administration and Congress should take this lag in funding into account in their budget proposals for the next few years. In addition, the administration should press for the annual refugee consultation to occur earlier in the year, so that budget allotments are more consistent with the Presidential determination on refugee levels.

Resettle through the US Refugee Admissions Program

With the Afghanistan and Ukraine emergency resettlement situations, the Biden administration used its humanitarian parole powers to allow the majority of persons fleeing from those countries to enter the United States. While conducive for bringing in refugees expeditiously, humanitarian parole does not include a path to permanent residency or access to certain social service benefits provided by the US Refugee Admissions Program. As such, those with parole could have a difficult time maintaining self-sufficiency and integrating into the local community.

At a minimum, Congress should step in and pass legislation to make these populations eligible for some of the benefits provided by the US Refugee Admissions Program. The Afghan Adjustment Act, which was introduced in 2021, for example, would provide a path to permanent residency, but has yet to be adopted by Congress.

Similar legislation should be adopted for the Ukrainians, who are unlikely to return to their homeland anytime soon. Congress should also consider passage of the Refugee Protection Act, which would strengthen protection for refugees and asylum-seekers entering the United States.

In the future, the US government should, to the greatest extent practicable, resettle populations in emergency situations through the US Refugee Admissions Program. By doing this, it would ensure that large populations are not left in limbo and faced with statelessness at the end of their parole period.

Finally, the Biden administration should increase the number of refugees admitted who are identified and directly referred to the US by NGOs in the field, as currently the vast majority of refugees are referred to the United States by UNHCR. Providing this additional avenue would increase access of the US Refugee Admissions Program to vulnerable refugees who are languishing in backlogs or in remote locations.

Expand the use of complementary pathways and private sponsorship

An emerging practice globally is the use of complementary pathways and private sponsorship to bring refugees into the country. Complementary pathways means, generally, that a refugee would apply for a labor, educational, or family visa as a separate channel of entry into the nation.

A private sponsorship means that a community group (or collection of individuals) or an individual or family would support the refugee with various services – housing, employment assistance, and other support – until they became self-sufficient. PRM has also recently introduced a private sponsorship program.

In order for these models to be successful, however, refugees who enter through these channels should be eligible for some government benefits, including permanent residency, as they are in the successful Canadian program. The government should also provide some material assistance under certain guidelines. Finally, these refugees should be admitted in addition to refugees resettled through the US Refugee Admissions Program.

Build up to a larger refugee ceiling over the next few years

While the Biden administration set a refugee ceiling of 125,000 for FY 2022, refugee admissions will fall short of that target. Instead of setting unrealistic goals which will not be met, the administration should increase the refugee ceiling steadily over the next few years, with the goal of resettling at least 200,000 refugees, if not more, in the last fiscal year of their first term.

The rebuilding of the US Refugee Admissions Program will take time, including reform of the admissions process. A more sustainable approach to rebuilding the program would also give time for the national resettlement infrastructure to be fully restored.

The US Refugee Admissions Program has endured the most threatening period in its history, with admission numbers at all-time lows. With the right changes and approach, the United States can regain its leadership in refugee protection globally.


by Kevin Appleby

scalabrinian spirituality 2023


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