Declaring his intent to restore the United States’ “moral leadership,” President Joe Biden announced that he is raising the cap on the number of refugees the country to as many as 125,000 for the fiscal year that begins this fall.
According to the White House, Biden also intends to work with Congress on overriding the cap for this fiscal year, set at just 15,000 by his predecessor.
But actually hitting a higher target right away would be difficult, even without a pandemic. During the Trump years, more than a third of US resettlement offices were shuttered, with their accompanying staff let go, the Associated Press reported — capacity that will need to be restored before admissions can be ramped up.
The president acknowledged that in a speech at the US State Department on Thursday. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said. Accordingly, “I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”
While a major increase — and the highest cap since 1993 — the new ceiling of 125,000 refugees is still far below the number the US accepted years ago. In 1980, the US resettled more than 207,000 people fleeing violence, poverty, and oppression; in fiscal year 2020, that number fell to less than 12,000.
In President Barack Obama’s final year in office, the US accepted just under 85,000 refugees.
Building capacity to resettle refugees is not needed solely within the government itself. There are nine national agencies that work with the State Department to find homes for the displaced; they too have faced staff cuts in the wake of a diminishing need for their services.
“Rebuilding our nation’s significantly-dismantled refugee resettlement system will take a great deal of effort and advocacy,” Tim Breene, CEO of the Christian humanitarian group World Relief, said in a statement. He urged the Biden administration not to wait before accepting more refugees, calling on the president to lift the current year’s cap on admissions and scrap “other policies restricting access to asylum.”
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