The Biden administration is considering raising the number of refugees who could be admitted to the United States next year, according to a source familiar with the discussions, as the program ramps up and is on track to meet higher admissions.
Immigration has been a politically sensitive issue for President Joe Biden, but the admission of refugees to the US generally has bipartisan agreement. This week, the issue is likely to be at the forefront again as Biden addresses world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly and reasserts leadership on the world stage, where the US has historically led on accepting refugees.
The refugee ceiling dictates how many refugees can be admitted to the US, but the administration doesn’t have to hit that number. Last year, Biden set the number at 125,000. Officials will fall short of meeting that goal, but a recent uptick in admissions has fueled renewed optimism in the program among refugee advocates.
Sources cautioned that the administration is likely to maintain the 125,000-refugee cap in the coming fiscal year, but even so, getting close to that goal in the months to come would mark a significant milestone.
“This coming fiscal year feels like a transition from an aspirational target to a realistic expectation,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement organization.
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 during the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a temporary suspension on resettlement.
In a statement marking World Refugee Day this year, Biden underscored his administration’s efforts to rebuild the refugee admissions program and said the US planned to welcome 125,000 refugees next year.
“Welcoming refugees is part of who we are as Americans – our nation was founded by those fleeing religious persecution. When we take action to help refugees around the world, and include them, we honor this past and are stronger for it,” Biden said.
The refugee cap requires consultation with Congress before the end of the fiscal year. Senior administration officials are expected to meet with lawmakers at the end of the month, according to another source familiar.
“The Department of State shares the President’s vision of a U.S. refugee resettlement program that reflects the generosity and core values of the United States. We do not have anything to share at this time on the FY 2024 Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
In his first months in office, Biden raised the ceiling to 62,500 after swift criticism over the administration’s initial plan to maintain the lower Trump-era cap. The administration later lifted the cap to 125,000, which is in line with a commitment he made in a foreign policy address at the State Department in 2021.
The refugee admissions process is arduous and can take years to complete. As of August 31, the US admitted 51,231 refugees, according to the latest federal data. While far short of the 125,000 ceiling, admissions since last October are more than double of all fiscal year 2022.
“In the past 11 months alone, more people have found safety on US soil through this pathway than the previous three fiscal years combined,” O’Mara Vignarajah said, referring to the refugee admissions program.
There are more than 35 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Refugee advocates credit Biden administration efforts to address bottlenecks in the system, as well as a new program that allows groups of private citizens to sponsor refugees from around the world, for the uptick.
Erol Kekic, senior vice president of programs at Church World Service, a refugee resettlement organization, described the gradual monthly increases in admissions as an “encouraging sign.”
“All of those combined have generated really, a lot of new numbers that would not have been able to come without some of these changes,” Kekic said.
But while more refugee admissions are welcomed by resettlement agencies, issues, like obtaining affordable housing for those who arrive, persist.
“It’s still been challenging for the resettlement agencies and that’s mostly because of the affordable housing crisis in the country,” Hans Van de Weerd, senior vice president for Resettlement, Asylum, and Integration at the International Rescue Committee.
“Even in the places where we have new offices, affordable housing is often really, really hard. That’s a problem for Americans, but it’s also a problem for refugees,” he added.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a resettlement organization, echoed those concerns.
“There’s definitely room for all of us to do more but we’re limited by housing, so we have to have more creative solutions,” he said.