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Once-Decimated U.S. Refugee System Continues To Rebound: Refugees Resettled Under Biden Administration Could Hit Highest Number In Decades

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New data reveals one of the strongest indicators yet that the U.S. refugee system has been steadily rebounding following massive cuts under the previous presidential administration: The number of refugees resettled in the United States during this current fiscal year could reach the highest levels seen in decades.

“According to the latest data from the Refugee Processing Center, the Biden administration is on track to resettle 92,979 refugees this fiscal year, up from 60,014 last year in FY 2023. These numbers are projected based on the 32,021 refugees resettled between the start of October and the end of January,” writes Austin Kocher, Assistant Research Professor at the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). 

“To put that in context, 93,000 would be the largest number of resettled refugees in any single year since 1995 and certainly larger than any year post-9/11 (although FY 2016 would be a close second).”

Soon after taking office in January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order seeking to raise the refugee cap from 15,000 – a historic low set by the Trump administration – to 125,000. Kocher notes that while the Biden administration hasn’t hit this cap in previous years, “the percentage of the cap used is increasing.” In fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the Biden administration used less than 20% of its cap. However, the administration used nearly 50% of its cap in the following fiscal year. That’s increased to an estimated 74% in the current fiscal year. Kocher notes that it’s possible that the administration could hit the full cap.

It’s a stark difference from just a few years ago when the Trump administration under immigration advisor Stephen Miller slashed the number of refugees that could be admitted to the U.S. to just 15,000, the lowest number in the refugee program’s history. The cuts to the program were nothing short of devastating. 

In a 2020 report, the Center for American Progress said that the reduced levels and funding started “a domino effect on the entire system—from decimating the local infrastructure, which supports newly arrived refugees, to affecting those overseas who are waiting to be resettled—and making it harder to simply restart once the numbers rise again.”

“US refugee agencies wither as Trump administration cuts numbers to historic lows,” read one 2019 headline. While refugee resettlement agencies welcomed the new cap under President Biden, one leader admitted that “our work is cut out for us.” As Kocher noted last fall, “refugee resettlement requires highly specialized skill sets and experiences that are not easy to train new staff quickly if and when funding eventually returns.”

“Thus, these numbers not only represent real people and real stories, these numbers also reflect a multi-year process of reinvesting in the refugee resettlement system,” Kocher continues. The Biden administration has also implemented programs that lessen the strain on resettlement agencies by allowing groups of everyday Americans to sponsor refugees. One of these programs, Welcome Corps, has allowed 15,000 Americans across 32 states to sponsor more than 7,000 refugees to date. Among them is Jill Goldstone, a Pennsylvania resident who, along with her neighbors, has sponsored several Congolese and Venezuelan refugees. While Goldstone said that she didn’t know much about Welcome Corps, the issue is deeply personal, The Philadelphia Citizen reported. “Goldstone’s grandmother was a Jewish refugee who emigrated to the United States from Poland when she was 16 years old because of the Holocaust. The rest of her family, who were not lucky enough to emigrate, were killed.”

Other refugees welcomed through private sponsorship by Americans include Johanna and Luz, a couple forced to flee Venezuela due to political oppression and violence. With help from sponsors Denise and Laura, Johanna and Luz have found jobs, enrolled in English classes, and made new friendships within Nevada’s LGBTQ community. While language differences can sometimes make communicating tricky, Johanna and Luz say they appreciated how Denise and Laura made the effort to make them feel more welcome.

Laura said that while she knew she wanted to help migrants seeking new lives here, she never realized that she would also gain something important from this experience. “People are people, and they’re hardworking, loving, and funny people,” she said. And it’s just been so much fun.”