After an outcry from the faith community and immigration advocates, the Biden administration May 3 fully reversed course and returned to its earlier plan to raise the ceiling for refugee admissions this fiscal year to 62,500 people.
That will be a dramatic increase from the record-low ceiling of 15,000 set by the Trump administration as part of its hardline anti-immigrant stance.
In February, Biden signaled he intended to raise the cap to 62,500 this year as a first step toward an eventual goal of 125,000. But on April 16 he announced the administration would not, after all, raise the ceiling for admission of refugees this fiscal year but would keep the Trump-set limit of 15,000. The reason given was the administration’s preoccupation with addressing a flood of immigrants from Central America on the southern border.
That reasoning didn’t pass muster with religious leaders and immigration advocates, who quickly pointed out the two issues are barely related and are, in fact, handled by different parts of the government apparatus. The refugee ceiling relates to planned, well-vetted immigration cases from all over the world.
The refugee ceiling relates to planned, well-vetted immigration cases from all over the world.
Biden and his team were accused of breaking not only a campaign promise but a restatement of the same promise just two months prior. Allies-turned-critics charged that the Democratic president was bowing to pressure from those Congressional Republicans who, like Trump, oppose immigration in general.
In an executive memo from the White House May 3, Biden said he has changed his mind: ‘Upon additional briefing and a more comprehensive presentation regarding the capacity of the executive departments and agencies charged with administering (the United States Refugee Admissions Program) to increase refugee admissions while responding to other demands, and given the ongoing unforeseen emergency refugee situation, I now determine, consistent with my administration’s prior consultation with the Congress, that raising the number of admissions permissible for FY 2021 to 62,500 is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.”
In reality, those “grave humanitarian concerns” are the same today as they were on April 16, noted Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, one of the largest faith-based agencies working in refugee resettlement in cooperation with the federal government.
“The State Department proposed the 62,500 figure in February 2021. Nothing changed about the refugee resettlement process during those two months; the border is a separate matter,” he said.
Whatever the cause of the reversal, though, the higher ceiling for admissions is good news, Soerens said. And while the goal of 62,500 is an aggressive increase, such a goal is necessary to begin rebuilding momentum lost during the Trump administration.
“This is very good news from my perspective,” he said. “It’s a good ceiling to aim for this year, and it helps prepare for an even greater ceiling next year.”
Soerens and others deeply involved in refugee resettlement work had warned earlier that the pipeline for processing refugees that had been in place for decades became so broken under Trump that it would take time to repair and rebuild. But that required rebuilding should be no deterrent to increasing the admission goal immediately, he explained.
Biden’s curious backtracking in April threw more caution into the rebuilding effort, he said. His organization, for example, didn’t post the job openings it had planned. “So now we’ll move forward with plans to open new locations. We’ll also activate our volunteer recruitment.”
Stephen Reeves, who leads the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s advocacy work and is executive director of Fellowship Southwest, also lauded news of the higher goal.
“We’re grateful that today President Biden made good on his previous commitment to refugees and those who welcome them to their new home in America,” Reeves said. “While we understand the resettlement infrastructure has been significantly damaged in recent years, this should not diminish our resolve to remain a beacon of hope for the persecuted around the world. We have the resources; we need the will and political commitment. I hope that welcoming refugees will once again become an issue of bipartisan agreement.”
CBF field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt work directly with refugees as founders of the Welcome House Community Network, a collaborative hospitality ministry serving refugees in North Carolina and Tennessee.
“These past several years with record low resettlement numbers reflect real people — moms, dads, children and senior adults who by no fault of their own have endured hardship and suffering,” Kim Wyatt said. “Despite this reality, we have witnessed Americans, neighbors, ready and willing to do whatever they can to help welcome the neglected refugee.”
That same spirit will motivate people of faith all over the country, added Soerens, who noted faith-based ministries are vital partners in local efforts to welcome and sustain refugees.
He suggested that people of faith who want to help should contact the resettlement agencies in their communities and prepare to volunteer when the time is right. Those agencies will need volunteers, donations of furniture and household items, as well as financial support, he said.
People of faith who want to help should contact the resettlement agencies in their communities and prepare to volunteer when the time is right.
Even a huge organization like World Relief depends on donor support to supplement the basic help refugees receive from government, he said. “Churches providing financial support is a huge part of how World Relief has survived the last four years.”
Those contributions and volunteers are part of the pipeline that must be rebuilt, Soerens said, noting that the Trump administration also used COVID as a reason to stop almost all immigration to the United States. So in a sense, the resettlement work must get back up to speed from a cold stop.
Because of the rapid acceleration that represents, the U.S. might not reach the 62,500-person goal this year, and that’s fine with him, he said. But moving that direction quickly will be necessary to get to the full goal of 125,000 annually.
The vetting process for refugee applicants can take up to two years before an immigrant ever gets on a plane to the U.S., Soerens explained. “We do know there are 35,000 refugees already approved by homeland security” who are in the pipeline to come. But the Trump administration was not interviewing people who were future applicants, which will present another challenge to resuming the flow.
“The question is how many more individuals can get through that process between now and Sept. 30,” which is the end of the government’s fiscal year. “We have five months left, and so far (this fiscal year) only about 2,000 refugees have been resettled.”