New Refugee Order Declares “America is Back”

A new Biden executive order provides a blueprint for rebuilding the badly damaged U.S Refugee Admissions Program.

New Refugee Order Declares "America is Back"
Biden’s executive order directs government agencies to remember that there are people waiting, often in danger, on the other end of all that paperwork and all those background checks. (John Englart / Flickr)

A little more than four years after Donald Trump decimated refugee admissions in the United States, President Biden declared, “America is back.” Back to welcoming refugees from around the world, irrespective of religion or race. Back to shining the “light of liberty on oppressed peoples.” Back to leading the way, as Biden declared before a State Department audience, so that other countries might follow.

The vehicle for bringing the country back to championing humanitarian protection is a Feb. 4 executive order that provides a blueprint for rebuilding the badly damaged U.S Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). A presidential memorandum published the same day promotes the rights of LGBTQI people around the world and includes a pledge to ensure access to refugee protection for persons facing persecution based on sexual orientation or identity.

The refugee executive order is particularly complex, going into far more detail about the mechanics of rebuilding the refugee program than some of the previous immigration orders, such as those rescinding the Muslim ban or revising enforcement priorities. This may be because the refugee program is in dire need of repair, after four years of increasingly restrictive refugee policies, in which President Trump slashed refugee admissions from the 110,000 persons set by the Obama administration for fiscal year 2017 to 50,000, then 45,000 for FY2018, 35,000 for FY 2019, 18,000 for FY 2020, and a miserly 15,000 for FY 2021.

Even sadder, extraordinary delays in refugee processing, including unnecessarily severe refugee vetting, exacerbated by the pandemic, resulted in only 11,814 refugee admissions in the last year. Biden has pledged to increase refugee admissions to 125,000 in FY 2022 and to consult with Congress this year to try to boost FY 2021 admissions.

New Refugee Order Declares "America is Back"
Extraordinary delays in refugee processing resulted in only 11,814 refugee admissions in 2020. (Greens MPs / Flickr)

People may have hoped that Biden would immediately increase refugee admissions numbers back to the original FY 2017 level, but too much damage has been done to the system to bounce back so quickly. Because setting the annual refugee admission numbers is in the president’s control, slashing the numbers as President Trump consistently did was relatively easy. But it is always easier to take away than to add, especially when a system has been powered down. 

Setting an artificially high number for the remainder of 2021 would ignore the practical fact that the program itself has to regroup, increasing personnel and resources before refugee admissions can dramatically increase, particularly in light of extra precautions that must be taken for refugee admissions during a pandemic.

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The new executive order, therefore, reflects the consensus among refugee resettlement and other humanitarian groups that the USRAP must not only be revived, but renewed.

The order emphasizes innovation, with a commitment to restoring the existing resettlement network while expanding it to include new relationships with private and community sponsors. It creates new oversight mechanisms, including the appointment of senior officials to monitor the coordination of the refugee program across the executive branch. It revokes “extreme vetting” executive orders issued by the Trump administration, putting in place instead a series of actions to create a screening process that is balanced, efficient and fair.

It also acknowledges untenable delays in processing special immigrant visas for Afghan and Iraqi nationals who aided the U.S. government, ordering a review and revamp of the process to make it more efficient and less bureaucratic.

And, in a nod both to the pandemic and to the often dangerous conditions in the countries where refugees wait, it also permits refugee interviews to be conducted via video conferencing. 

In short, it directs government agencies to remember that there are people waiting, often in danger, on the other end of all that paperwork and all those background checks.

New Refugee Order Declares "America is Back"
A view from U.S. side of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz. (Peg Hunter / Flickr)

But the order goes further, acknowledging the concern voiced by many that the USRAP must lean into cutting edge theories of refugee protection, rather than rely on the slow development of domestic law for guidance. Consequently, the order signals that women, children and others who are vulnerable to persecution based on gender—such as Central Americans fleeing domestic abuse—should be a priority going forward.

It also mandates additional training for adjudicators to ensure that they are familiar with “the standards governing refugee claims of women, children, and other individuals who are more vulnerable to persecution due to their age, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” It permits something advocates have long called for—access to counsel or other representation during the refugee interview. And it recognizes that spouses and partners in same sex relationships deserve equal access to protection.

All of these changes address the refugee resettlement program as it is, but the order also looks to the future, commissioning a report on the impact of climate change on migration and internal displacement. The cross government report will address not only the likelihood of evolving migration and refugee flows based on climate change, but is also expected to offer solutions and recommendations for mitigating the mass displacement we are already seeing in parts of the world due to increasingly severe weather patterns, rising sea levels and other disruptions cause by climate change.

Eventually, many of the policies initiated by the executive order must become law, to ensure that refugees are protected in the United States and not subject to the whims of autocrats. And, of course, there will continue to be a need to push the government to fulfill the directives in this order, and to reach and exceed 125,000 admissions each year.

But the work begins with this executive order, which is an intense restatement of America’s reasons for welcoming refugees as well as an indictment of all the things we have gotten wrong. As I first read it, I remembered that the refugee program, unlike many other parts of the immigration system, is fundamentally shaped by executive authority. That’s why President Trump got away with almost destroying it, but that is also why President Biden has the chance to remake it.  

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Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.