After Joe Biden came into office, Suleiman Omar Hassan and his roommate, both living in Uganda at the time, scrolled through the news on their cellphones every day looking for the answer to a life-altering question: Will Biden raise the refugee cap?
Hassan’s hopes to resettle in the United States were riding on Biden lifting restrictions put in place under his predecessor. And in April, after an eight-year process, he finally arrived to North Dakota and reunited with his family.
Hassan is one of around 6,300 refugees who arrived to the United States since last October, putting the US on track to finish the fiscal year with the lowest number of admissions ever recorded.
The US had for years outpaced other countries in refugee admissions, allowing millions into the country since the Refugee Act of 1980. But the program took a hit under former President Donald Trump, who slashed the number of refugees allowed to come to the US and put a series of limits in place curtailing who was eligible to arrive.
Even so, at its lowest point, nearly 12,000 refugees were admitted under Trump. That figure likely won’t be reached this year, with only two months left in the fiscal year.
“We are working expeditiously to resettle as many eligible refugees as possible this fiscal year, but we are also severely constrained by the global pandemic, and the operational challenges posed by COVID 19-related restrictions,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The challenges, refugee advocates say, have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and Biden’s initial hesitancy to sign off on increasing the Trump-era ceiling, which dictates how many refugees are admitted in a given fiscal year.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization, said a confluence of factors have accounted for the decline in admissions. “When you have a pandemic, with a program that takes two years to get through, you’re not going to reach high numbers,” he added.
There are more than 26 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The pandemic has only worsened conditions on the ground for some countries and resulted in a temporary suspension on resettlement travel last year. The UN refugee agency estimates that around 74% of refugees are able to meet just half or less of their basic needs because of the pandemic.
That has put greater demand on resettlement. While Biden quickly terminated travel bans put in place under Trump, he held off on signing an increased ceiling that would’ve also changed limits baked into the Trump-era cap. His hesitancy resonated with those anxiously awaiting for approval to come to the US, including Hassan.
“There was this time when he proposed to lift [the cap] and what was remaining was his signature … Even when I got the flight booking, I was like, ‘oh anything can happen,’” Hassan told CNN, referring to flights that had been canceled in the absence of the President’s signature over the spring.
The Biden administration eventually raised the refugee ceiling to 62,500 people for the 2021 fiscal year, but Biden conceded it likely wouldn’t be reached, citing work to undo “the damage of the last four years.”
Biden signed an executive order in February focused on rebuilding and bolstering the resettlement program, including reviewing and revising policies related to vetting and adjudication of refugee applicants.
Refugee advocates say the refugee admissions program needs an overhaul, in part because of the red tape that’s set up barriers for people trying to resettle in the US and made it more challenging for people to navigate during the pandemic.
“As with many other arenas, Covid has underscored the basic modernizations needed, like technology and connectivity, and how we can vastly accelerate a multi-agency process that has been done in person and on paper,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president of global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.
For example, refugees are interviewed in person by refugee officers, but with travel severely curtailed because of the pandemic, those interviews were delayed. The State Department spokesperson said that to address the backlog, the administration is piloting the use of video teleconference technology to conduct the necessary interviews to process applications in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security.
“We will continue to review, assess, and apply the full range of tools and initiatives outlined in the Executive Order to strengthen the domestic and overseas infrastructure of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including expanded hiring for critical roles,” the spokesperson said.
In the coming weeks and months ahead, the US government will resume in-person refugee interviews in Central America, the majority of which will be for cases that have been reopened as part of a program that allows certain at-risk Central American youths to live in the US, according to a source familiar with deliberations.
The State Department announced this week it will also expand access to the US refugee program for certain Afghans amid fears of reprisal by the Taliban as the US military withdrawal nears completion.
Biden has pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year to signal the US commitment to refugee admissions. Hassan, meanwhile, is breathing a sigh of relief and settling into a new life in North Dakota.