The Next Presidential Determination on Refugee Resettlement: The Time to Act is Now

Susan Martin
Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration Emerita
Georgetown University

Credit: Falco Masi / Unsplash

The Next Presidential Determination on Refugee Resettlement: The Time to Act is Now

On Friday, April 16, President Joseph Biden issued a long-awaited “Memorandum for the Secretary of State on the Emergency Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021.” The Emergency Presidential Determination (PD) failed to deliver on the president’s promise to raise the ceiling on refugee admissions from the historically low level of 15,000 set by President Trump to 62,500 during this fiscal year, and it caused more obfuscation than illumination of the president’s goals. The White House’s attempt to correct itself hours later led to still more confusion.

The new PD maintains the 15,000 ceiling for the time being, while changing the allocation of admission numbers. Under Trump’s PD, priority went to those who had fled religious but not other forms of persecution, and it explicitly barred admissions of most applicants from “high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control, including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.” These countries produce a large share of the global refugee population, many of whom fled in fear of their lives from the very terrorism cited. In the words of the Emergency PD, the Trump-era bars prevent “the United States Refugee Admissions Program from responding” to the “unforeseen emergency refugee situation” in these countries. Under the new PD, admissions will be allocated regionally, as has been the practice in the past. Refugees in Africa would receive almost half of the admission slots (7,000), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (3,000). Europe/Central Asia and Near East/South Asia would receive 1,500 each and East Asia would have 1,000 slots. Another 1,000 slots are an unallocated reserve.

What was disappointing about the PD was the decision to defer any immediate increases in the refugee resettlement ceiling. The President held out some hope in the document, stating that a subsequent PD may be issued to increase admissions if the 15,000 admissions ceiling is reached prior to the end of the fiscal year. The White House later stated that such a decision would be made by May 15. Although a delay of only one more month, for refugees at risk and family sponsors in the United States awaiting their loved ones, any delay is heartbreaking and potentially life-threatening.

Even had the PD announced a new higher ceiling, however, it would have been difficult for the administration to achieve significantly higher levels of admissions without addressing a number of barriers. The first is financial. The Trump administration’s report to Congress on FY 2021 refugee admissions estimated the cost of resettlement at $814 million. This would cover the costs of 15,000 new arrivals, plus the continuing costs of helping refugees admitted in prior years. The Biden administration will need to reprogram existing funds or obtain supplemental appropriations to secure sufficient resources to identify needy refugees, adjudicate additional applications for resettlement, and help newly arriving refugees integrate into US communities.

The second is institutional. There are three principal agencies that have responsibility for resettlement. The State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) oversees refugee programs abroad and has cooperative agreements with nine national voluntary agencies (volags) that place and receive refugees in local communities. Under these agreements, the volags offer social services and provide cash grants to the newly arriving refugees over a 90-day period. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Department of Homeland Security adjudicates applications for admission to the United States and coordinates the security checks undertaken to prevent admission of terrorists and criminals. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services provides funding to state governments to cover the cost of services that refugees access, such as cash and medical assistance, as well as programs designed to help refugees become economically self-reliant as soon as possible and to integrate into US society. In addition to the need for financial resources, all of these organizations will need to recruit and train additional personnel to manage the resettlement of larger numbers of refugees—as will the state, local, and nonprofit agencies that they support. Because of the low levels of resettlement during the Trump administration, these institutions have much less capacity now than they had previously.

A third barrier follows on this staffing deficit. In addition to their work on refugee resettlement, each of these governmental units is also trying to address the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. PRM is trying to resuscitate the Central American Minors (CAM) program that was suspended by the Trump administration and recently reinstated by the Biden administration. This program allows certain minors with parents in the United States to be admitted as refugees or for humanitarian purposes, thus avoiding the dangerous, irregular trip to the border. USCIS must adjudicate asylum applications at the border as well as resettlement applications abroad. There are separate corps of asylum officers and refugee officers, but they are cross-trained to assist each other when there is an increase in applicants. The asylum officers are already heavily backlogged and unable to help the refugee corps deal with a larger caseload.

ORR has a triple mission. In addition to the resettlement program, it has an office responsible for protecting unaccompanied minors and another one responsible for protecting survivors of human trafficking. The agency is focusing much of its energy now on finding safe, child-friendly accommodations for unaccompanied minors and reunifying them with family in the United States.

None of these barriers is insurmountable. In fact, similar issues have arisen previously and been resolved. Prior to the Refugee Act of 1980, refugees from Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, Soviet Union, and elsewhere were admitted under the Attorney General’s authority to parole persons into the country. It was only after their arrival that Congress took action to define their status and appropriate funding. In 1980, just weeks after the passage of the Refugee Act and while the United States was ramping up efforts to resettle more than 200,000 refugees that fiscal year, the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the country in just a few months. Rather than use the newly defined asylum system, the Carter administration paroled the Cubans as well as Haitians who were also arriving by boat, referring to them as Cuban-Haitian Special Entrants (Status Pending). Again, no appropriations or regularization of status was available at the time of admission. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed many persecuted religious minorities to depart after having previously been denied exit visas. Neither the PD nor the resettlement budget had anticipated these geopolitical events, yet steps were taken to accommodate their admission through an emergency PD. A similar situation arose during the conflict in Kosovo when the international community agreed to resettle, at least temporarily, thousands of Kosovars stranded at the border with Macedonia. The United States did its part through an expansion of the resettlement program. More recently, the Obama administration increased resettlement and use of parole for admission under the CAM program.

A strong public-private partnership was key to the ultimate success of these efforts. Of course, the use of special authorities such as parole has limitations, including uncertainty about the future status of the refugees and the extent to which the federal government will reimburse costs borne by states, localities, and voluntary agencies in the absence of appropriated funds. In these cases, however, the public-private partnership allowed the federal government to act decisively to protect refugees who may otherwise have come to great harm. Volags undertook placement and reception activities at their own expense. State and local governments provided aid and, often in conjunction with the volags, engaged with the private sector to find employment for refugees. Ethnic associations, religious institutions, philanthropy, and ordinary citizens sponsored newcomers and helped them adjust to their new lives. The refugee communities did much of the heavy-hitting in helping their co-nationals to become self-sufficient. Finally, Congress did its part in passing legislation to reimburse state and local governments and private resettlement agencies and to adjust the status of the parolees to permanent residents. Although messy at times, these extraordinary actions proved to benefit the United States as well as the refugees, most of whom became productive citizens that have paid back the country as taxpayers, entrepreneurs, cultural icons, and philanthropists.

Prior to issuing the next PD, the Biden administration should take the following steps. First, it should convene a high-level taskforce whose members are drawn from each of the sectors involved in resettlement—federal government agencies and representatives of state and local government, voluntary agencies, the private sector, philanthropy, and, of course, refugees themselves. It should include experts and former officials who are knowledgeable about previous efforts to increase resettlement mid-year while also addressing a surge in asylum applications at the border. The mission should be to design a strategy that is executable this fiscal year, involves substantial involvement of the non-profit and private sectors, and is not dependent on legislative action. In the meantime, advocates for increased resettlement should galvanize as much bipartisan support in Congress as possible to provide additional resources for the remainder of this fiscal year as well as FY 2022.

Second, President Biden should give a major address that informs the American public of the reasons that resettlement serves the national interest and the steps he plans to take to increase resettlement levels this year and beyond. The speech should make it clear that refugee resettlement is: a testament to America’s founding as a haven for people fleeing religious and political persecution; an important foreign policy tool, particularly in assisting our allies who are hosting far more refugees than we do; a way to enhance our national security, particularly when used for translators, interpreters, drivers, guides and others who risk their lives to protect US military forces abroad; and a good economic policy since resettled refugees have created millions of jobs for American citizens through their work and entrepreneurial successes.

At the same time, the President should remind Americans of what can happen when the United States fails in its obligations to help refugees. Few Americans today remember the fate of the passengers of the SS St. Louis, a ship bound for Cuba with hundreds of passengers who had fled Nazi Germany. When Cuba refused to recognize their visas and allow the refugees to disembark, the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere followed suit. Eventually, the ship had to return to Europe. About half of the refugees perished in the Holocaust. In crafting the speech, President Biden should also remind Americans that refugee resettlement has long been a bipartisan issue. He should emulate Ronald Reagan’s farewell address in setting out the reasons to support resettlement. In his speech, Reagan referred to America as the shining city upon the hill, which is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Finally, President Biden should visit refugees who are awaiting resettlement in one of the principal host countries. This would provide the President, his staff, and the press corps first-hand knowledge of the situation of refugees who have applied for admission to the United States and are now waiting in the backlog. It would also allow him to speak directly with the leaders of those countries about the value of resettlement. For example, if he went to Uganda, he would learn it has admitted 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, even though it is one of the poorest countries in the world (GDP per capita of $916 per year). Uganda has also granted refugees the right to work and to own land. In 2020, 100 percent of its refugees had access to primary health care and in 2021, Uganda aims to enroll 100 percent of primary-school-aged refugee children in school. The visit would demonstrate to the American public the importance to host countries in the developing world that the United States cares about refugees, that it applauds their efforts, and that it wants to share the responsibility for refugee protection with them.

A month is a short and a long time, depending on one’s perspective. If the administration is serious in its intent to raise the level of resettlement in FY 2021, it has limited time to prepare for an increase in admissions. It should use the time to develop an actionable, practical strategy to address the many barriers to increasing resettlement while educating themselves and the public on the benefits that will accrue from these actions. Lives are literally in the balance.

Author Names

Susan Martin

Date of Publication April 19, 2021
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy041921


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