In September, President Joe Biden again set an ambitious goal: The United States would relocate up to 125,000 refugees over the next 12 months, part of a commitment to rebuild the program after record-low admissions under the Trump administration.
But the Biden administration is struggling to recover from the cuts of the Trump years and dramatically increasing the number of refugees it takes in, and it will struggle to get close to this year’s target. Proponents say it’s time to shift things into higher gear for 2023.
“Honestly, we’ve had several years of slow or no processing 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 of 15,000 in his final year. Biden later raised it to 125,000 for his first full year in office — a cap not seen since the 1990s.
But in fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, just under 25,400 refugees were admitted.
And last month, just over 2,000 refugees were admitted — a number that would need to rise significantly for the US to relocate close to 125,000 in fiscal 2023.
Proponents say a more realistic annual number is just over half that.
“I’m actually confident it will grow to almost 10,000 a month by the end of the year,” said Yael Schacher, Americas and Europe director at Refugees International.
“It will be a while before we get there. So I’m more confident that maybe 70,000 people will be relocated.”
State Department officials say they are still at a disadvantage because the Trump administration has stripped and exhausted the program.
“We lost a lot of staff to the previous government,” said Derek Chollet, a State Department adviser. “We have made sure we have the appropriate staff here at the State Department and around the world.”
The State Department says that in addition to hiring more staff, it has also established a refugee coordination center with the Department of Homeland Security and the US Digital Service to increase processing efficiencies.
Currently, refugees regularly wait years to be admitted. A State Department spokesman told Spectrum News that it can take “12 to 18 months or more” after an applicant is assigned to a resettlement assistance center, which can take years.
In one of his first executive orders, President Biden had called for a six-month deadline, which is still the administration’s goal.
“Getting people through the resettlement of refugees faster is the big problem,” said Schacher. “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 route for displaced people from around the world to enter the United States
But the Biden administration has recently turned to emergency humanitarian parole — the agency that has taken in tens of thousands of Afghans and Ukrainians over the past year.
Officials say these recordings “required a significant reallocation of time and resources.”
But proponents claim it’s time to ramp up resources for the broader refugee program and make important updates: hire more refugee officials, use video conferencing to conduct interviews abroad, or build an online system for refugees to track their cases.
“A lot of people don’t realize that most refugees have no idea where their case is in the pipeline,” Broemel said.
And Broemel also stressed the need for intensive top-down coordination, praising the new White House special adviser on refugee reception Andrew Nacin, who with a technology and immigration background is tasked with overhauling and increasing the efficiency of refugee reception.
Nacin helped speed processing for Afghans last year, shortening it to just 30 days, a White House official said.
When asked if the US would meet the 125,000 visitor cap set for this year, State Department’s Chollet said, “I mean, that’s our cap.”
“That’s as many as we promised. And so we are working hard to get as many as possible within that cap.”