The Biden administration informed Congress on Monday that it hopes to welcome 125,000 refugees in fiscal 2022, envisioning a massive ramp-up in admissions even as the government struggles to handle its current challenges at the southern border and with Afghan evacuees.
President Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign had promised that high level of refugees but failed to reach it this year, blaming predecessor Donald Trump for leaving damaged refugee machinery. Mr. Biden was under intense pressure to make sure next year met his goal.
The 125,000 figure is a ceiling, not a target, and the administration may fall short of it, as it will this year.
But immigrant-rights advocates said the symbolism of the announcement was important.
“Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, I know the Biden administration is working to restore the United States’ longstanding bipartisan tradition of providing safety to the world’s most vulnerable refugees — including Afghan refugees,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Biden envisions 40,000 refugees from Africa, 35,000 from the Near East and South Asia, 15,000 from East Asia, 10,000 from Europe and Central Asia, and 15,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean.
In 2020, the last full year under former President Trump, the government set a target of 18,000 refugees and admitted fewer than 12,000.
Mr. Trump had set a ceiling of 15,000 for the current fiscal year.
The administration now figures it will resettle at 12,500.
Refugees are foreigners who apply for protection from persecution while outside the U.S. To qualify, they must prove they cannot reasonably return home. They are similar to asylum-seekers, who apply from within the U.S.
The refugee workload is shared by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, while the asylum workload is shared by Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
The tens of thousands of Afghans who were airlifted out of Kabul and who have reached the U.S. are not eligible for refugee status, but they can apply for asylum. Other Afghans who have escaped their home and reached other countries but not yet the U.S. can still apply for refugee status.
Tens of thousands of migrants jumping the southern border also are taking initial steps to demand asylum, creating a massive workload for officers already stretched at Homeland Security.
Trump administration officials had defended their cuts to the refugee ceiling by citing the backlog of border asylum cases, saying the country needed space to decide cases and resettle those who earned status.
Immigrant-rights activists said that was a fallacy, and said the country could handle far more people than the Trump team envisioned.
Church World Service, for example, had called on Mr. Biden to set a 200,000-person cap for 2022, citing needs of people from Syria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma and Afghanistan.
“Setting the admissions goal is only step one. The administration should immediately invest in rebuilding a robust refugee resettlement program,” said Erol Kekic, senior vice president of the organization.
When refugees arrive in the U.S., they are turned over to resettlement agencies such as Church World Service and Catholic Charities, which then work to create a soft landing for the new arrivals in various communities.
Agencies say their capacity to handle large numbers stagnated in the Trump years because there wasn’t demand. Now, they’re scrambling to ramp up.
The Biden administration, in a report announcing the 2022 cap, said rebuilding that capacity is a priority for 2022.
And the administration said it will attempt to improve “security and integrity” in the program.
“This includes increasing anti-fraud efforts and staffing across agencies, for all priority and in-country programs,” the report said.
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