Good information, but likely to change under a Biden administration.
The president’s “Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, released this October, provides us with a snapshot of the Trump administration’s refugee and asylum policy in FY 2020 and its projections for FY 2021 (those will likely be short-lived with the new Biden administration). I highlight a number of important points below, followed by more detail and longer excerpts on key matters. All quotes are from the report’s text; emphases are mine.
- In FY 2020, the United States admitted over 11,000 refugees for resettlement (under a ceiling of 18,000) and granted asylum to approximately 31,000 individuals.
- Recent years have seen an increase in asylum claims by migrants encountered along or near the U.S. southern border with Mexico. New cases add to the lengthy backlog of pending claims and undermine the integrity of the asylum system. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States led the world in the number of new asylum applications received in calendar years 2017, 2018, and 2019.
- Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting travel restrictions, the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended from March 19 to July 29, 2020, except for those who were considered as “emergency cases”. (As I wrote in October, the Covid-19 pandemic slowed down, but did not halt, refugee arrivals in FY 2020. Also, none of those resettled during the suspension or afterward were tested for the Covid-19 virus prior to being admitted here.)
- The pandemic also decreased the number of asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border. The CDC issued an order in March suspending the introduction of persons into the United States at or near the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Although the number of such encounters dipped at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has now returned to its pre-pandemic level. (We can expect even higher numbers under a Biden administration since Joe Biden vowed to end “Trump’s detrimental asylum policies” once in office.)
- The Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder for resettled refugees to attain self-sufficiency. Widespread hiring freezes, layoffs, and reduced hours, wages, and benefits in the hospitality and transportation industries hit many refugees, who often find their first jobs in these sectors. (This will be even more problematic with the resettlement of up to 125,000 refugees in FY 2021, as Biden has pledged.)
- Enhanced security vetting is applied to refugee candidates for resettlement in the United States. Refugees may pose an additional risk to the security of the United States because if it is determined after admission that they present a threat to national security or public safety, it is extremely difficult to remove certain refugees in immigration proceedings for lack of a country to which they can be removed without the possibility of persecution. Refugees from high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control such as Somalia, Syria, and Yemen are not allowed in. (Joe Biden, in a video address to Muslim advocates, announced putting an end to these restrictions on day one of his presidency.)
- U.S. humanitarian assistance reaches millions of displaced people worldwide, including those who will never be considered for resettlement in a third country. The Trump administration prioritizes proximity help and the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their home countries — the solution that most refugees prefer. (A Biden administration on the other hand — like the Obama administration — is likely to favor increasing the number of resettlement spots as well as to look for “other channels” or “private sponsorships” to admit more refugees into the United States outside of the refugee resettlement program.)
- In FY 2021, the United States under the Trump administration was projecting to receive more than 300,000 refugees and new asylum claims: 290,000 new asylum claimants and 15,000 resettled refugees under the new refugee admissions ceiling. (Joe Biden did vow to increase FY 2021 refugee ceiling to 125,000 and “restore asylum laws” should he win the presidency. Under a Biden administration, we can expect at least 700,000 refugees and new asylum claims this fiscal year: 580,000 new asylum claimants — that’s double Trump’s projection, but numbers could be much higher — and 125,000 resettled refugees.)
- The Trump administration estimates the cost for refugee resettlement at $814 million in FY 2021, down from FY 2020’s $932 million. (The cost for refugee resettlement in FY 2021 under a President Biden is likely to be double that amount. Under the Obama administration, the cost in FY 2016 was over $1.4 billion for some 85,000 resettled refugees and the estimated cost for FY 2017 was over $1.5 billion, for a ceiling of 110,000 refugees.)
Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic slowed down (but did not halt) refugee arrivals. (Refer to my “Refugee Resettlement Roundup for FY 2020” for details about FY 2020 admission numbers, nationalities, religious affiliation, and placement states. A three-year roundup of refugee resettlement admissions under the Trump administration from January 20, 2017 to January 20, 2020 is also available.)
Following the alarming spread of the Covid-19, the world took extreme measures to try and contain this contagious virus. Necessary steps undertaken by many countries, including the United States, entailed travel restrictions, quarantines, closing of borders, etc., which affected refugee admissions. On March 17, 2020, UNHCR and IOM (the International Organization for Migration) announced the temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees in view of the Covid-19 global health crisis.12 The suspension was lifted on June 18 and “the resumption of resettlement departures for refugees” officially declared.13 But, as I noted in an October Backgrounder, refugees were still being resettled into the United States despite this suspension, albeit in smaller numbers. Moreover, they were not tested for the Covid-19 virus prior to being admitted here.
In the current 2021 fiscal year, amid an economic and health crisis, thousands of refugees (up to 125,000 under an upcoming Biden administration) from countries with floundering healthcare systems are expected to be resettled in the United States without prior testing for the Covid-19 virus. President Trump could change that by issuing an executive order explicitly citing Covid-19 as a SARS quarantinable communicable disease. That should make Covid-19 testing (or vaccination when this becomes available) obligatory for refugees shortly before departure for the United States. Such an executive order would not likely be reversed by Biden, who has been very vocal about the dangerous nature of that disease.
The Covid-19 pandemic affected refugee resettlement and asylum claims in the United States, as shown in the refugee report to Congress:
Refugee resettlement in the United States decreased significantly in FY 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to travel restrictions in and out of refugee processing sites worldwide, USRAP suspended refugee arrivals from March 19 to July 29, 2020 except for emergency cases [it is not certain how “emergency” cases are defined. USRAP resumed general refugee arrivals July 30, 2020 with additional health measures specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [which translates into a fever check and a series of health questions about Covid-19 symptoms or exposure to someone who tested positive for the virus and recommendation to stay home as much as possible for the first 14 days after arrival.
The COVID-19 pandemic also decreased the number of aliens seeking humanitarian protection at the U.S. southern border. In order to protect public health, CDC issued an order March 20, 2020 temporarily suspending the introduction of persons into the United States…at or near the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Since then, credible fear receipts dropped significantly, from over 4,500 per month in January and February to approximately 500 to 700 per month in April through August 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the assimilation of resettled refugees and approved asylees into American society and their progress towards self-sufficiency. Widespread hiring freezes, layoffs, and reduced hours, wages, and benefits in the hospitality and transportation industries hit many refugees, who often find their first jobs in these sectors.
Why, then, admit thousands of refugees (up to 125,000) amid a global crisis, knowing that self-sufficiency is hard to attain under these circumstances? Even the co-founder of a U.S.-based group of Australian volunteers who support resettled refugees admitted it was an absolutely brutal time to be arriving in America: “These guys [resettled refugees from Manus Island and Nauru] are landing with barely more than the clothes on their backs and they’ll be looking for work alongside millions of recently unemployed Americans. Since COVID-19 hit, more than 100 refugees reached out to us for help, they’ve lost jobs and are struggling to pay rent and for basic supplies.”