The United States has long been a haven for refugees and asylum seekers and this status has helped shape US national security and humanitarian policies. While the past administration did not see the value in the United States serving as a leader in refugee protection, the Biden administration has promised to prioritize it. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden repealed the Trump administration’s “Muslim Ban,” giving hope to thousands of immigrants and families impacted by it. A great deal still needs to be done, and so Inkstick asked Kelsey Norman, Wardah Khalid, and Adam Bates about what the new administration needs to do. They unanimously agree that the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) needs to be rebuilt and improved, especially as the world is experiencing multiple refugee crises.
Check out their other recommendations below:
Kelsey Norman, Director of Women’s Rights, Human Rights and Refugees Program, Rice University
- Rebuild the USRAP: For decades, the United States has been a leader on protecting refugees — and the USRAP has served as the most important tool for demonstrating this commitment. The Trump administration gutted the refugee resettlement sector, limiting both financial and personnel resources. While it will take time to rebuild its capacity in order to raise the number of resettled refugees, the president has signaled that this issue requires immediate attention. President Biden issued an executive order on February 4 that lays out steps to strengthen the refugee resettlement program. The executive order reversed the Trump administration’s funding cuts to US government agencies and affiliates that vet and process refugees abroad along with the organizations that assist refugees once they arrive in the United States. The order also lays the groundwork for making the USRAP more efficient and transparent. For example, an efficient USRAP means that refugee applicants will have timely access to their own application record, will be allowed to present additional evidence within a reasonable timeframe if rejected, and be able to request a review of the decision. If fully implemented, these changes will constitute meaningful steps toward a more accountable resettlement system. With a strong and coordinated effort, the nuts and bolts of USRAP can be restored and improved by the start of FY 2022, which will hopefully coincide with a better outlook on the pandemic and the lifting of travel restrictions around the globe.
- End the Use of Private Detention for Asylum Seekers: The Biden administration should ensure that asylum seekers are allowed to remain inside the United States, but outside of private detention facilities, while awaiting their hearings. President Biden has already begun the process of revoking the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, and informally the “Remain in Mexico” policy) via an executive order issued on February 2. More recently, he took steps to begin processing the approximately 67,000 individuals who were forced to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration’s policy. To continue on this trajectory of restoring and improving the US asylum system, Biden should act to end the use of private detention facilities for asylum seekers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as per his campaign promise. Instead, asylum seekers can remain outside of private detention, supported by government-funded nonprofit organizations or family members, while they await their hearings. A recent study showed that 83% of all non-detained asylum seekers attend all their court hearings, and for those who have a lawyer, 96% attend all their hearings.
- Commit to Immigration Legislation: The Biden administration has submitted its plan to provide permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients in the United States to Congress. But he has also stated that he is willing to break up the legislation into piecemeal portions — for example, allowing just DACA recipients a pathway to permanent legal status — if the legislation proves too difficult to pass through Congress in its entirety. Yet Biden should stand by his comprehensive plan. Democratic control of both chambers of Congress means that another time to attempt a large-scale amnesty for all undocumented immigrants may not come around again anytime soon. If successful, such legislation would allow millions of individuals to live their lives in public, pay taxes, find jobs that match their qualifications, and travel freely to their home countries without the fear of being unable to return to the United States. In order to pacify critics, the Biden administration’s plan stipulates that all regularized immigrants must pass a background check and pay back taxes, but this should go both ways; those who missed out on tax refunds or access to federal aid programs because they were in the United States irregularly should be reimbursed retroactively once regularized.
Wardah Khalid, Policy Analyst and Founder of Poligon Education Fund
- Rebuild the USRAP: While it is heartening to see that the Biden administration supports rebuilding the refugee resettlement program, there is a lot that needs to be done to convert that vision into a reality. This will require additional funding and personnel as well as a revamping of the program itself. I am glad the administration is focusing on efficient and fair processing, reducing delays, employing technology, and capitalizing on private sponsorship of refugees to accomplish this. With 26 million refugees in the world and the imminent rise of climate refugees, a rebuilt program could mean the difference between life and death for the world’s most vulnerable.
- Commit to New Immigration Legislation: During the last Congress, the NO BAN Act was introduced in the House and Senate to rescind President Donald Trump’s Muslim and Africa bans and prevent such a discriminatory and un-American ban from being introduced in the future. The bill passed in the House but was not brought to a vote in the Senate because it did not have enough co-sponsors. The bill has been reintroduced this session, and it is imperative the Biden administration commit to working with the Senate to pass the NO BAN Act into law this time around.
- Increase Capacity for Visa Processing: The Biden administration should reexamine and improve the US visa process, which has long been suspected as being discriminatory toward applicants from Middle Eastern or Muslim majority countries. This was exacerbated by the Muslim and Africa travel bans, and there is a backlog at both the Department of State and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for visa processing. Now that President Biden eliminated the travel ban, the backlog will only increase as new visa applications are submitted. Therefore, there is an urgent need to increase the capacity for new visa processing by hiring additional personnel and opening more visa processing centers.
Adam Bates, Policy Counsel, International Refugee Assistance Project
- Rebuild the USRAP: Four years of deep cuts under the Trump administration has resulted in the lowest refugee admissions targets in the 40 year history of USRAP — and in the midst of the greatest global refugee crisis in modern history. Under US law, each fiscal year the president makes a determination of how many refugees to admit in the following year. The FY 2021 refugee determination that President Biden has inherited from his predecessor is 15,000 refugees, which is the lowest figure in US history. But US law allows the president to raise that figure before the next fiscal year, a power that has been used in the past by presidents of both parties. President Biden should take immediate action to raise the refugee target for FY 2021 and allocate sufficient matching resources, including funding, to go along with his recent commitment to rebuild the program.
- End Discriminatory “Extreme Vetting:” One of the tools the Trump administration utilized to grind refugee processing to a halt was the introduction of a cascade of so-called “extreme-vetting” policies, especially targeting refugees from Muslim-majority countries. The cumulative effect of these policies has been to delay the applications of tens of thousands of refugees, including many who had already completed processing; to deny protection on a “discretionary” basis to those who are otherwise eligible as refugees; to prolong — sometimes indefinitely — the reunification of families; and to empty the pipeline of applicants for resettlement, ensuring that refugee arrivals remain low for years to come. In fact, the Trump administration’s end goal by reducing refugee arrivals for the foreseeable future was to ultimately starve and dismantle the infrastructure for refugee resettlement. President Biden has promised a review of these vetting practices, but as long as they remain in place in their current form, refugees remain in danger and separated from their families.
- Keep Its Promise to Individual Allies: Throughout US missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in recent years, thousands of locals have assisted US efforts in some way, often as translators and interpreters but also in a variety of other essential roles. Over the years of conflict, Congress has created a variety of programs to provide a pathway to safety for those who assist the United States and come under threat because of that service. But these programs have been beset by bottlenecks, processing slowdowns, and downright unlawful behavior from the government, leaving thousands of refugees in danger without a viable pathway to safety. The Biden administration should commit to the expedient and efficient operation and expansion of these programs. Especially in light of potential drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is imperative that the administration solve these backlogs and not leave anyone behind.
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