How President Biden Can Make His Commitment to Refugees a Reality

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

​​Editorial credit: Peter Braakmann / Shutterstock.com

How President Biden Can Make His Commitment to Refugees a Reality

In an Executive Order signed on February 3, 2021, President Joe Biden promised a thorough review of the US refugee admissions program as well as the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) under which Afghans and Iraqis endangered by their association with the US government are admitted. He also announced that the United States will resettle 125,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2022 and consult with Congress to increase this year’s admissions quota as a down payment. These promises offer hope to thousands of refugees who have been awaiting resettlement, often for years and still more often in precarious settings. Fulfilling this promise will not come easily, however. The new administration has scant time to rebuild a program that the Trump administration sought to destroy.

The United States has been a refuge for persons fleeing persecution since the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts with passengers fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs. Resettlement is important not only to save lives but also to serve US national interests. During the past 70 years, the United States has led the world’s efforts to find solutions for refugees through its support for international assistance and protection as well as its willingness to accept refugees through its resettlement program.

Through much of this period, the United States has given priority to refugees who have been endangered because of their association with the United States. The SIV program, in particular, has been used to relocate interpreters and others who risk their lives in support of American soldiers and others deployed overseas; the potential for resettlement has been seen as an important inducement for those who fear that employment by the US military or civilian agencies will place them and their families in danger. Other resettled refugees have included family members of those already living in the United States, individuals working for US companies or educated at US universities, people whose safety is threatened in countries of asylum, victims of sexual and gender-based violence, and those with no hope of ever returning home.

US resettlement has been an effective tool in persuading host countries to keep their doors open to refugees and to other countries to resettle their fair share. It has solidified relations with allies who have large refugee populations within their borders and has showed persecutory governments, as well as other nations, that the United States cares about their victims. Refugees have also been beneficial to the US economy. As entrepreneurs, they have founded both small and large businesses that employ and serve Americans throughout the country. They have used their scientific and technological know-how to build new industries, as seen in the contributions of Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin (Google), and Daniel Aaron (Comcast). On average, refugees increase their earnings within the first few years after arriving and eventually match, and sometimes exceed, the US average, becoming taxpayers and contributors to their communities.

To prepare for the increase in admissions, the administration needs to reframe the discourse on refugee resettlement to emphasize its central importance to the nation’s identity and the way it serves the national interest. The public needs to understand that refugee resettlement is and has been beneficial to our own well-being. As indicated by the President, the administration should also hold immediate consultations with Congress on lifting the ceiling for the current fiscal year to admit as many refugees as possible from those who have already been approved or are in the pipeline. COVID-19 is still an impediment to processing these applications but all efforts should be made to bring in as many as possible.

Rebuilding the capacity of the badly depleted community-based resettlement infrastructure that is central to the program’s success must be a priority. This requires vigorous consultations with states, localities, and resettlement agencies to ensure their receptivity, capacity, and support for refugees. Funding to resettlement agencies that is not tied, as under current policy, to the number of refugees actually resettled would help prepare these institutions for the larger increases next year. Similarly, there is urgent need to bolster the capacity within the federal government to implement a robust resettlement program. This means filling as quickly as possible the key federal posts responsible for refugee admissions and integration. In addition, the administration’s proposed FY 2022 budget will need to include new funding if the administration is to reach the 125,000 refugee admissions goal that the President has set. This means early consultations with Congress to ensure that the funds are forthcoming.

Rebuilding US relationships with the global refugee system is also needed. The administration should consult soon with international organizations, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which can help identify refugees in need of resettlement. Joining the Global Compact on Refugees, which seeks to expand the availability of durable solutions for refugees, would embed US resettlement efforts in a global initiative that the US should be leading, not eschewing as did the Trump administration.

The President has taken the first step in outlining his firm commitment to increase refugee resettlement. Much work lies ahead in making his goal a reality. It will be well worth the effort.

Author Names

Susan Martin

Date of Publication February 19, 2021

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