Foreign Policy

The United States cannot accept more refugees without reforming its resettlement system

On February 4, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order to raise the annual refugee resettlement limit to 125,000 and restore the United States’ position as “the leader in refugee resettlement”. His order, a sharp reversal of US refugee policy, revokes a memorandum from the President of former President Donald Trump that restricted admission under the guise of preventing terrorism. Still, it won’t go far enough.

In his final year in office, former President Barack Obama approved the resettlement of up to 110,000 refugees a year. However, the Trump administration cut those rates in half, allowing only 53,700 refugees into the country in fiscal 2017. In the years that followed, the numbers fell even further, with Trump capping the refugee cap at 18,000 for fiscal 2020. In reality only 11,814 people were relocated.

Trump’s drastic reduction in refugee admission to disabled resettlement organizations, where many agencies have shut down for lack of work, while former employees were pushed to find new jobs. All of this has raised concerns about their ability to relocate an influx nearly ten times higher than Trump’s final year in office.

But even if restoration of the previous status quo were possible, a return to Obama-era politics would not ensure that refugees’ needs are met. There have long been problems in the US resettlement process, forcing refugees to navigate a complex network of agencies and bureaucracies.

First of all, refugees are comprehensively screened. This process begins overseas with the Resettlement Support Center and US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once approved, the Office for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR) work together to manage aid to refugees. PRM works with nine voluntary, not-for-profit national resettlement agencies to run its reception and placement program that provides short-term support to refugees for the first 90 days. ORR, on the other hand, offers longer-term assistance and works through government-administered programs or local non-profit organizations.

In this public-private partnership, resettlement organizations are often constrained by federal regulations and limited funding. Admission and referral funding, for example, limits support to the first 90 days after the refugees arrive and hinders the ability of local resettlement partners to help refugees over a longer period of time. Then ORR offers additional funds in partnership with states. However, the cut in the extended federal funds has put pressure on states and municipalities and has contributed to an intensified backlash in these municipalities. Funding for refugees through the PRM and ORR has also not adapted to the increased cost of living, further constraining refugees as they adapt to life in the United States.

If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Several federal executive agencies, state governments, national non-profit organizations, local non-profit organizations, churches, mosques and community groups are involved in the refugee resettlement system. With such an intricate patchwork approach to resettlement, the needs of refugees often fall through the cracks.

The existing system also fails to address the main problems refugees face upon arrival. US resettlement policy aims to help refugees become “self-sufficient”. This goal is closely focused on securing employment and thus on ending state support. However, in focusing on employment, the system neglects social challenges such as learning English and adapting to new norms. Many refugees may also experience emotional problems with the trauma that initially drove them from their home countries, or they may experience discrimination and hostility in their host communities. However, none of these issues are prioritized – let alone addressed – in US resettlement policy.

Simultaneously with the hike in the resettlement cap, Biden’s new executive order overwrites Trump’s 2019 executive order, which required the approval of states and cities before refugees were relocated to their communities. Although this order was overturned by the courts, it and Trump’s other actions succeeded in portraying refugees as “a threat and a burden” to American communities, as the Washington Post put it. The more refugees allowed to enter the United States, the more they can join host communities that are suspicious or even openly hostile to their arrival.

With his order, Biden has shown his commitment to the relocation of refugees and support for international law – but that is not enough. The system’s public-private partnership aimed at reducing costs does not create all refugees for success. Biden should revise the resettlement system so that it not only focuses on employment, but primarily helps refugees adapt to life in the United States and address the trauma of the past. The system should offer one year rent and a basic living scholarship – and not limit support to the first 90 days – to ensure refugees have the time and opportunity to learn English to familiarize themselves with their new communities employ and receive vocational training. While these efforts have an upfront cost, they are critical in positioning refugees to thrive in the United States.

Trump’s policies also gave credibility to xenophobic – and especially Islamophobic – fears that refugee resettlement would increase terrorism. The Biden administration should counter this xenophobia by explaining the refugee screening process and highlighting the contributions that refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, are making in the United States. Refugees bring their skills to the host communities and increase consumer demand in their new homes. Accepting refugees is also an American tradition that enriches the country.

A major overhaul of the Refugee Resettlement Program is needed to help refugees adapt to life in the United States, make it easier to navigate the system, and address potential concerns from host communities. Raising the refugee resettlement cap is a step in the right direction. However, to fully meet the needs of the refugees, the Biden government must go further than just restoring the status quo.

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